Title: The Unseen
Author: Katherine Webb
Release Date: May 22, 2012
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4 out of 5
Cat Morley has been recently released from prison after fighting for women’s suffrage in England. The Rev. Albert Canning and his wife take pity on her and bring her into their house as a maid. But Cat isn’t the pliable, grateful girl they were hoping for; instead, she’s willful and doesn’t believe that she is automatically below the Cannings just because she was born in a lower class. When Robin Durrant, a expert in “theosophy” comes to the Canning household after Albert claims to have seen fairies in the woods, Cat knows that nothing will be the same.
The Unseen is a novel told in two different time periods: pre-World War I and the present day. In the present day, Leah Hickson receives a call from the War Graves Commission after finding a World War I-era soldier’s body, and they’re hoping the letters found with him might be a clue to his identity. It’s a great frame for the storyline set in the past, as it creates an aura of mystery around the entire novel. Readers know that someone will die, that something bad will happen, but nothing is entirely clear. It creates great suspense for the storyline.
Cat isn’t the most likeable character in The Unseen. She’s a hard, cold woman, though considering what she’s been through, it’s easy to understand why. That’s not to say readers will hate her, just that she isn’t the most endearing of sorts. She doesn’t care whether people like her, she just wants freedom. Through Cat, Webb makes a great commentary on class issues during the time period, as well as what women were forced to endure while fighting for the right to vote.
The addition of Robin Durrant creates some turmoil in the Canning household. This section of the book is likely based on the historical Cottingley fairies – trying to capture “elementals” on film. Neither Cat nor Mrs. Canning appreciate his presence in the house. He makes Cat uncomfortable, especially when he threatens to interfere in her life. For Mrs. Canning, Robin seems to captivate her husband in an unhealthy way. He creates a lot of tension through his presence, and readers know that this cannot end well.
Katherine Webb has created a suspenseful, taut novel in The Unseen. Her characters are well-developed, and though Cat isn’t the easiest to get to know, readers will sympathize with her plight from the beginning. The history is well-written and Webb brings the past alive for the reader. Because of the historical issues the novel deals with, it would likely make a good book club pick.