The Unseen – Katherine Webb

The Unseen

During the long hot summer of 1911, a feisty young woman arrives in Thatcham, Berkshire to work as a maid in the Canning household.  Having served time in prison for undisclosed crimes, Cat Morley crashes into the lives of the vicar Albert Canning and his wife Hester, determined to leave her mark.  Cat is not the only disruptive influence though as Albert invites Robin Durrant into their home – Robin shares Albert’s interest in theosophy but Albert becomes more and obsessed with his guest and the quest to capture photographic images of elementals.  Passions run high as the temperatures soar and it is inevitable that someone will get hurt in the process.

I have mixed feelings about this novel – it’s a dual time frame story, one set in 1911 and one in 2011 but very little time is spent on the contemporary narrative.   Now, I know I’ve frequently said how the modern story frequently doesn’t work as well for me in this type of novel but The Unseen does seem a bit off-balance in this respect and I feel that it might have been better to stick to the 1911 story and remove the 2011 element altogether as it really doesn’t enhance the reading experience. 

So I’ll focus on the story of the Cannings and their troublesome blow-ins, Cat and Robin.  I found none of the characters particularly likeable but some of my favourite fictional characters are obnoxious so no problem there.  The Reverend Albert is weak and watery and easy prey for the charismatic, cunning Robin who is desperate to excel at something in life and impress his family.   Cat is like a caged animal and yearns for freedom and equality – not quite the right fit for someone in service!  In contrast, Hester is naive beyond belief, even for a century ago – I wanted to shake her.

A varied assortment of characters then with interesting historical elements – suffragettism, attitudes to homosexuality, theosophy but if only it had a bit more pace at the start (and I’m a fan of slow, lyrical reads!) It took me about 100 pages to “get into” the story and I must admit the temptation to skim was ever present.   It’s a very well written novel and the author has clearly done her research but it didn’t engage me as much as The Legacy.

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  1. That’s a shame about the dual time frames – I do like them when they are done well.

  2. admin says:

    I think it would have been better without the duality, Sam. There seem to be a glut of dual time-frame stories out now, some better than others. :(

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