“A vicar with a passion for nature, the Reverend Albert Canning leads a happy existence with his naive wife, Hester, in their sleepy Berkshire village in the year 1911. But as the English summer dawns, the Cannings’ lives are forever changed by two new arrivals: Cat, their new maid, a disaffected, free-spirited young woman sent down from London after entanglements with the law; and Robin Durrant, a leading expert in the occult, enticed by tales of elemental beings in the water meadows nearby.
Quickly finding a place for herself in the underbelly of local society, Cat secretly plots her escape. Meanwhile, Robin, a young man of considerable magnetic charm and beauty, soon becomes an object of fascination and desire. Sweltering in the oppressive summer heat, the peaceful rectory turns into a hotbed of dangerous ambition, forbidden love, and jealousy—a potent mixture of emotions that ultimately leads to murder.”
Thoughts: Readers who may be ambivalent about Ms. Webb after reading her first novel will be awed by the shocking and fascinating world created by Ms. Webb in her second novel, while long-time fans will rejoice that Ms. Webb’s second novel is just as good, if not better, than her first. Revolving around two women from two very different class structures, as well as a flash-forward to a modern-day heroine with her own issues, The Unseen gets to the heart of the changes that defined the turn of the century as well as the universal concerns that face most women then and now.
In The Unseen, not only was the world on the brink of the first world war, people were scrutinizing the class structures and gender inequity in never-before-seen ways. In addition, the singular importance of religion in country life was dissipating as people gravitated towards spiritualism and other new-found belief structures. It is into this world that Hester and Cat each try to make their mark and establish their own sense of identity. Hester represents the old-fashioned. Her opinions on a wife’s role are quaint and decidedly out-of-date for modern readers. Her efforts to achieve happiness are as much a result of the constraints created by political and social rules at the time as well as her own naiveté and lack of understanding of the opposite sex. She is sheltered and privileged, and her struggles show that. Yet, her inability to give up, her increasing desire to speak up against her husband, and her growing ability to form and share her own unique opinions, all of which are social impossibilities to this well-bred young wife, is as admirable as it is intriguing.
Hester may be the more gentle of the two, in her fight to obtain her husband’s love and devotion, but it is Cat with whom the reader falls in love. Cat is Hester’s antithesis, everything that Hester is not. Cat refuses to be confined by anything, either literal or figurative. Her belligerent nature belies a psyche that has been buffeted and trampled upon by the authorities in her life. It is Cat’s battles which will draw the ire of most female readers and Cat’s plight that will leave readers of any gender in shock and awe. Her willingness to speak her mind and fight for her rights and those of other women are decidedly attractive to modern readers.
Cat is as fiery as Hester is calm, but both are trapped due to the rules put in place by men. These men take the form of Albert, Robin, and John, three very different men that provide a broad representation for the male sex within the novel. While one assumes The Unseen of the title are the nature spirits that brings Robin to the lives of the Cannings and the discovery of which absorbs so much discussion and attention by all of the characters, the true unseen in the novel are the bonds established by the laws that considered women nothing more than chattel once married and those established by the unwritten dictates of class structure. While the battles have already been fought and many of the rules binding Hester and Cat are no more, The Unseen provides an excellent reminder of how things used to be and just how difficult the battle was to change them.
While much of the action in The Unseen pits women against men in a struggle for equality, there are several other aspects to the us versus them theme that permeates the story. The conflicts surrounding the past versus present and religion versus atheism versus spiritualism are just as strong elements of the novel. In fact, all of the conflicts throughout the novel are quite timeless in that they never cease to be resolved. Women will always fight for equality, religion will also battle against nonbelievers, and the status quo will always remain obdurate. It is comforting and yet disappointing to see just how little has actually been resolved in the past 100 years.
The Unseen is a fascinating portrait of the turmoil that ended the Edwardian era in England. Ms. Webb’s characters bring these opposing forces together in such a manner that a reader is left aching with emotional involvement and interest. The entire novel is reminiscent of Kate Morton and her carefully researched depictions of England, which is a very good thing. Ms. Webb’s exacting attention to detail, as well as her fully-realized characters, create an addicting story that takes on a life of its own within a reader’s mind. There is much to like and dislike in each of the characters, creating distinct areas of grey that creates more realistic characters, while the battle between change versus status quo is a timely prompt that change is never without its foes. The battles the suffragettes in England faced are all too vivid and horrifying, while Hester’s naiveté and her continuing devotion to her not-so-deserving husband is as endearing as it is frustrating. The pacing of the story is perfect for the subtlety of the mystery. More importantly, the tension and horror builds slowly and steadily throughout the novel. The Unseen is one of those delicious novels that successfully avoids revealing all of its secrets until the very end. The result is a gorgeous story that showcases Ms. Webb’s improved writing and proving that Ms. Webb is one author to closely watch.
Acknowledgments: Thank you to LibraryThing’s Early Reader Program for my review copy!