Monday, July 16, 2012

The Unseen by Katherine Webb

England, 1911. The Reverend Albert Canning, a vicar with a passion for spiritualism, leads a happy existence with his naive wife Hester in a sleepy Berkshire village. As summer dawns, their quiet lives are changed for ever by two new arrivals. First comes Cat, the new maid: a free-spirited and disaffected young woman sent down from London after entanglements with the law. Cat quickly finds a place for herself in the secret underbelly of local society as she plots her escape. Then comes Robin Durrant, a leading expert in the occult, enticed by tales of elemental beings in the water meadows nearby. A young man of magnetic charm and beauty, Robin soon becomes an object of fascination and desire. During a long spell of oppressive summer heat, the rectory at Cold Ash Holt becomes charged with ambition, love and jealousy; a mixture of emotions so powerful that it leads, ultimately, to murder.Last year I read and really enjoyed The Legacy by Katherine Webb. When I saw that the author had a new book I was very happy and looked forward to reading it.

Marg's Thoughts: 

When Cat Morley is sent from London to the small village of Cold Ash Holt, it is a chance for a new start for her. Whilst her new mistress, Hester Canning, knows something of Cat's recent past, she has decided that the rehabilitation of Cat will be her new pet project and so keeps the details to herself, which prompts plenty of speculation amongst the villagers as to what crime it was that she committed. Hester has been married to her husband for some time but things are not as they should be and the only person that she can confide in is her sister who has her own marital issues to deal with.

Albert is very interested in theosophy and when he believes that he sees some elemental spirits in the meadow, an 'expert' in the field, Robin Durrant, comes to stay at the vicarage and settles in for an extended stay. The longer that Durrant stays the more tensions rise in the house. Albert becomes more obsessed further neglecting his wife, Cat distrusts Durrant from day one and he isn't above stooping to blackmail to get her to do what he needs her to do.

Hester is an extremely naive young woman. She knows that things are not as they should be but she can't seem to reach her husband emotionally in one crucial aspect of married life. Albert is a cold fish and Robin is smarmy and duplicitous from the first page that he appears on.

Whilst none of the characters are particularly likable, the most interesting character in the book is Cat. She has been in service at a big house in London but really she doesn't really fit fully within the servant class but she certainly is not a lady either. When she becomes involved in the suffragette movement she finds imprisoned and the reader is exposed to some of the terrible conditions that Cat and others like her were exposed to as they fought for a right that most of us take for granted - the right to vote. Cat was then freed to work as a Hester's servant but she finds it difficult to settle back into normal life. The only place that Cat can find solace is with George the barge man but even with him she cannot trust enough to not feel trapped or imprisoned.

The blurb talks about a murder, and there is one, but I was kind of surprised at how late in the book it occurred. Part of the reason is because this isn't a traditional mystery in that the reader is trying to figure out who done it, although that is part of the story, but more the feel of the story is related to the spiritualism elements and the strange goings on in the vicarage at Cold Ash Holt.

The story unwinds both in the present time and in the past. I am usually a big fan of the dual narrative storyline! I love seeing modern characters discover what was going on in the past at the same time as we are learning what is happening too, but it can be difficult at times to get the balance right. It is a very good author who manages to make you care about both story lines at the same time. Unfortunately for me, the balance between the two strands was all wrong and I think that in some ways that is even reflected in the book blurb where there is not a single mention of the modern storyline.

The opening premise of the modern story line was a good one. Leah is a journalist who has answered a call from her old boyfriend to go to Brussels. He works for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and they have uncovered the well preserved body of a soldier from World War I and he has two interesting letters sent to him by a H Canning. Leah's journey takes her from Belgium to the small town of Cold Ash Holt to try and discover who this man is. In Cold Ash Hold she meets a man who is the grandson of Hester and Albert Canning. Mark (I think it that was his name) is extremely distrusting of journalists. The reason for this is explained in due course, but could have been quite interesting but because the modern storyline felt tacked on, almost like an afterthought, none of the issues that were raised were explored as much as I would have liked.

While this book was interesting, I never really felt that I was caught up in the time and place and the book seemed to drag a bit as well. In summary, this book has the potential to be a really compelling read but it unfortunately did not live up to that potential for this reader.

Rating 3.5/5

Kailana's Thoughts:

I read The Legacy by Katherine Webb in August of 2011. I was originally drawn to Katherine Webb because she was being compared to Diane Setterfield and Kate Morton. I have enjoyed these authors and their styles; so I am always on the look-out for comparable new authors to try. To start off, I will admit that I enjoyed The Legacy more than The Unseen. This surprised me because I thought the WWI connection to this book would easily make it the better of the two. The interesting thing is that in my review of The Legacy I thought that Webb would only get better. I am disappointed to find that I was wrong. That's not to say that I didn't enjoy The Unseen - it had its qualities, too.

Despite being interested in what Webb did next, I missed the information that this book was expected. I guess I was not expecting a new release so soon after her other one. I jumped at the chance to read it because I have always been intrigued by WWI and WWII books. And, I was captivated by the story in the beginning. I liked the idea of a 100 year old mystery. It begins as a story about an unknown WWI soldier, an ex-boyfriend, and his ex-girlfriend reporter. She is working freelance and needs a big story. He thinks he wants her back. What happens is a novel that flips back and forth from 2011 to 1911. The flipping viewpoints is similar to the story-telling method in The Legacy. I did enjoy the history lesson and, done right, changing viewpoints are a good way to tell a story.

So, I suppose you are wondering why I didn't like this book as much? If I had to put a finger on it I would say the characters. I found them much more interesting in The Legacy. As a result I was more intrigued by the overall story. In The Unseen I was interested, but not blown away and invested in the characters. I never seemed to lose myself in the story. As a result, The Legacy remains my favourite, but I still want to read more from Webb. I still think she has a lot of potential.

It is not that this book was bad. I just know that Webb can do better. I hope that an authors new book will be better than their previous one and am disappointed when it doesn't meet my expectations. Hopefully book 3 will get her back on track for me. I haven't given up yet!

(I generally don't give ratings, but if I did I agree with Marg's 3.5.)


  1. I did so like the setting and the characters but then you said it disappointed you. Sounded so good at the beginning though.

    1. The set up was definitely intriguing but it didn't feel well executed to me.

  2. I agree with what Marg said. It could have been a great book, but it lacked...