The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola

the-unseeingIt’s Christmas 1836 and Hannah Brown is looking forward to her wedding to James Greenacre. However, the marriage will never take place; instead, Hannah is brutally murdered and in the weeks that follow, the parts of her dismembered body are discovered in various locations around London. Her fiancé, Greenacre, is arrested and found guilty – but although he admits to disposing of the body, he claims that Hannah was already dead when he found her. This makes no difference to the judge and jury and Greenacre is sentenced to hang, along with his mistress, Sarah Gale, who is accused of concealing the murder.

Sarah had been living with Greenacre as his housekeeper before being asked to leave so he could marry Hannah. She insists that she knew nothing about the murder and Greenacre also denies that she had any involvement, but this is not enough to save her. As she sits in a cell in Newgate Prison, Sarah’s only hope is the petition she has submitted asking for clemency. The lawyer appointed by the Home Secretary to look again at Sarah’s case is Edmund Fleetwood, young, idealistic and principled. After speaking to Sarah and hearing her talk about her life, Edmund is convinced that she should be freed, but how can he prove it? And is it possible that he is becoming too emotionally involved in the case to be able to see the facts clearly?

Anna Mazzola’s debut novel, The Unseeing, is based on a true crime; the Edgware Road Murder, as it became known, really did take place and James Greenacre really was found guilty and was sentenced to death. Sarah Gale was also arrested, but I won’t tell you what her eventual fate would be. I didn’t know and that meant I was kept in suspense wondering what would happen to her. It’s important to remember, though, that this is fiction and not everything in the book is taken from historical fact – which could explain why some of the developments towards the end of the novel didn’t completely convince me.

Edmund Fleetwood, who plays such a major role in the novel, is a fictional character and the author has created a fictional story for him running alongside Sarah’s. I thought the two stories worked well together – I did like Edmund and I shared his frustration as Sarah repeatedly refused to provide any information which could have helped her defence – but there were times when I felt I was being distracted from the central plot and I just wanted to get back to Sarah in the Newgate. The portrayal of prison life is one of the novel’s strong points and reminded me of other prison-based historical novels such as Antonia Hodgson’s The Devil in the Marshalsea and Sarah Waters’ Affinity.

The most interesting aspect of the book, though, is the exploration of what it meant to be a woman accused of a crime in the 19th century: the unfairness of the law, the way in which evidence against a woman was considered, the possible bias that could arise from a verdict being reached by an all-male jury, and whether the punishments handed out were in proportion to the crime. The fact that many of these women had children – like Sarah’s little boy, George – added another complication. Sarah is lucky enough to have a sister, Rosina, who takes care of George while she is in prison, but what will happen to him if the worst happens and she can never come home?

The Unseeing is an interesting blend of fact and fiction; I did enjoy it, but I felt that there wasn’t enough to make this book stand out from others of its type. I couldn’t quite love it, but I liked it and will be looking out for more from Anna Mazzola.

Thanks to Sourcebooks Landmark for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

Review: Affinity by Sarah Waters

This is the story of two women, both prisoners in their own different ways and drawn together by a special bond – their ‘affinity’.

Margaret Prior is a single woman of twenty nine who, following the death of her father, begins visiting London’s Millbank Prison as a Lady Visitor. Lady Visitors were women who voluntarily visited prisoners with the aim of befriending them and giving them comfort during the time of their imprisonment. However, Margaret is in need of some friendship and comfort herself. From her very first visit, she finds herself strangely drawn to Selina Dawes, a young spiritualist imprisoned for assault after one of her spiritualism sessions goes badly wrong, leaving a woman dead and a girl traumatised.  Selina blames her ‘control spirit’, Peter Quick, for what happened, but is she telling the truth?

The book is told in the form of diary entries – Margaret’s longer sections being interspersed with Selina’s shorter ones. Margaret’s diary entries are very bleak and miserable, as she is trying to cope not only with the loss of her father, but also with her feelings for both Selina and her sister-in-law Helen, the expectations of her domineering mother, and the sense of being ‘left behind’ that she experiences when her younger sister gets married and leaves home. Although I found it difficult to like Margaret, I did have a lot of sympathy for her – she had been labelled a ‘spinster’ and was bound by the conventions of the time, preventing her from studying and leading the kind of life she wanted to lead.  I really wanted her to find happiness with Selina.

Selina’s sections of the story are very vague and confusing and I didn’t fully understand them until I went back and read them again after reaching the end of the book. Her entries chronicle the events leading up to the death of Mrs Brink at the seance, and allow us to watch the development of Selina’s spiritualist abilities and the first appearances of the spirit Peter Quick.  Throughout the story, the reader is made to wonder whether Selina really has the powers she claims to have or if Margaret is the victim of an elaborate hoax.

I enjoyed learning about life in a Victorian prison, as it’s not something I’ve read about in so much detail before. Waters does a wonderful job of conveying the oppressive atmosphere of Millbank, with its labyrinthine corridors and gloomy wards.

I haven’t read all of Sarah Waters’ books yet so I can’t really say where Affinity stands in comparison to her others, but I thought it was an excellent book – suspenseful, moving and with some passages that were genuinely spooky.