Tuesday, May 22, 2012
Review: The Unseen, by Katherine Webb
Original date of publication: 2011
My edition: 2012 (Harper Collins)
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired my copy: review copy from the Amazon Vine program, April 2012
The Unseen is another time-split novel. The historical bit takes place in 1911, when a young woman with a troubled past comes to the rectory in a small Berkshire village to be a maid. Cat Morley is a spirited, rebellious girl, and she clashes with several people in the village, including the vicar and his wife, who are pretty much stuck in their ways. Then Robin Durrant comes to the village, shaking things up so to speak with his talk of theosophy and the ability to see—and photograph—spirits. In the present is Leah, a journalist who is investigating the story of all these people in the past, including that of a n unknown WWI soldier.
As with all these types of novels, the historical strand is by far the strongest. Leah is kind of an archetype; she’s disillusioned with her career and looking for change. So when her ex boyfriend calls her up to ask for her help in researching the story of a unknown WWI soldier, she jumps at the chance, despite the fact that she could get hurt again. Leah is more or less a cardboard character, serving as a vehicle for the far more important story—Cat Morley’s.
I had mixed feelings about Cat. On one hand, I enjoyed her spirit and independence; on the other, I thought she was a little bit whiny, acting way out of line. She also has an air of entitlement that’s not usual for servants of the time period; this is explained, but very feebly. Cat’s background story is less of a mystery than you might suppose; as soon as I read the word Holloway, I knew where the story was headed. It was an interesting time period, when things were changing; no one is more representative of this than Cat and Robin Durrant, the theosophist who essentially has Albert Canning under his spell. However, although a lot of fuss is made over Durrant’s theosophy, it’s never actually explained to the reader or why the otherwise concrete-thinking Reverend is taken in by it; and although at one point Durrant and Cat debate about it, they never get past the superficial aspects of it.
Going back to the present-day narration, I thought the way that the story was revealed was a bit clumsy—Leah doesn’t actually do much research work beyond reading microfilm newspaper reports of the story and doing a bit of footwork in modern-day Cold Ash Holt. I wish the novel had abandoned the time-slip format and focused on Cat—she’s by far the more intriguing character.