Moving away from my usual fare for this one; it’s not fantasy and it’s not young adult.
‘It is 1837 and the city streets teem with life, atmosphere and the stench of London. Sarah Gale, a seamstress and mother, has been sentenced to hang for her role in the murder of Hannah Brown on the eve of her wedding.
Edmund Fleetwood, an idealistic lawyer, is appointed to investigate Sarah’s petition for mercy and consider whether justice has been done. Struggling with his own demons, he is determined to seek out the truth, yet Sarah refuses to help him. Edmund knows she’s hiding something, but needs to discover just why she’s maintaining her silence. For how can it be that someone with a child would go willingly to their own death?’
This is Anna Mazzola’s debut novel, which could be described as historical crime fiction. The book starts with a prologue, which, in hindsight, I think was redundant. It didn’t add to the story as such and just left me more puzzled than anything else. But when I started the story itself, I found the book difficult to put down.
Mazzola describes 1830s London, especially the conditions in Newgate Prison so well, it didn’t require much effort to picture it; I could almost smell it too. For me, her descriptions are what made this book.
“… the chaos and stench of Fleet Street. Omnibuses, hackney coaches, one-horse cabs and carriages navigated the dung-filled road. At the dirtiest sections, young crossing sweepers ran nimbly between the vehicles to sweep the dirt into piles at the side of the road. Street sellers cried out their wares and steeple bells chimed together to make the noise of London that rose and fell but never stopped.”
“At six o’clock the machinery of the prison rattled into action: the strident note of the bell, the thud of boots on corridor floors, the rasp of keys in locks, of bolts being drawn back and the clank, clank, clank of door after door opening, like a train leaving the station. The only voices audible were those of the warders, shouting orders or rebukes.”
“Dawn came on like a ghost, colourless and silent… It was grey and quiet as he made his way eastwards past the great dome of St Paul’s and through Cheapside, and the lamp-lighters were still running up their ladders to extinguish the streetlamps. It being Sunday, the City’s warehouses and offices were closed and silent, wreathed in the morning mist. Here and there, housekeepers and porters were about, sweeping away the night’s filth. Street children stooped and searched for anything they might be able to sell.”
Poverty and hardship were never far away, even for those who, at first glance, should have been well-off. Although women and children, especially, suffered the most, it certainly wasn’t the case that men, mainly the responsible ones, had an easy life either. Mazzola describes all of this with a light, deft touch.
The characters were interesting enough to hold my attention, and there was definite character development. Though I did start to find Sarah trying when she steadfastly refused to break her silence. There were moments when it seemed as if she was on the verge of confiding in Edmund but then wouldn’t. After a few similar scenes, I admit to getting impatient for the story to progress; maybe the book could have been shorter to eliminate some of that repetitiveness.
On the whole, I enjoyed ‘The Unseeing’. That Mazzola is also a criminal justice solicitor shows in the legal detail, which, in my opinion, was just enough to explain matters without swamping the reader in legalese.
I may well have given this 5* but decided on 4* instead. Apart from the repetitiveness that I mentioned, there was one other thing. I hadn’t realised this story was based on a real case until I read the ‘historical note’ at the end of the book. Hannah Brown was an actual murder victim, and the two arrested for the murder were James Greenacre and Sarah Gale. These real-life people are characters in the story, including Sarah’s young son.
I enjoy historical fiction, though the kind I read is usually set in medieval times, like the books by Elizabeth Chadwick. I know authors take certain liberties because none of us can know what the people/characters were truly thinking or feeling, and it’s never bothered me before.
This one, however, left me with mixed feelings. It took me quite awhile to work out why and I can only think it’s because it revolves around someone who was murdered. I didn’t feel comfortable, knowing that I’d read a fictional account of Hannah Brown’s life leading up to her murder. Was there any of the real Hannah Brown in the story, or was all of it fictional? I wondered the same about Sarah Gale and James Greenacre; was it fair/right to portray any of them in a way that would fit a fictional piece with little or no regard for the actual person? And what about their families?
I don’t know; maybe I’m being too fussy. I just know I’d have enjoyed the story more if it had been pure fiction.