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The Unseen by Katherine Webb
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The Unseen (2011)

by Katherine Webb

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Numa só palavra: viciante! Este é um daqueles livros que dá vontade de virar a página e saber o que vai acontecer de seguida. Para além da acção ser passada em dois tempos diferentes (1911 e 2011), a autora mostra uma profunda sabedoria sobre o momento certo de mudança de século, deixando o leitor com vontade de saber o que se vai passar a seguir em cada um deles. Ainda não tive oportunidade de ler o outro título da autora lançado pela Asa, “A Herança”, mas já ouvi falar muito bem desse livro também. Parece que Katherine Webb tem o dom da palavra e demonstra isso muito bem através das páginas dos livros. Até ao momento final nunca consegui adivinhar o que ia acontecer, qual das personagens iria morrer. Uma morte era certa, o mais difícil era descobrir qual era! Apesar de tudo se passar num curto espaço de tempo não notei aquela velocidade no decorrer dos acontecimentos que muitas vezes nos deixa decepcionadas por não serem muito desenvolvidos, nesta historia tudo acontece com uma calma enorme e descrições feitas nas alturas certas, deixando qualquer leitor maravilhado com a história que tem na sua frente. ( )
  anokas2757 | Mar 17, 2013 |
Numa só palavra: viciante! Este é um daqueles livros que dá vontade de virar a página e saber o que vai acontecer de seguida. Para além da acção ser passada em dois tempos diferentes (1911 e 2011), a autora mostra uma profunda sabedoria sobre o momento certo de mudança de século, deixando o leitor com vontade de saber o que se vai passar a seguir em cada um deles. Ainda não tive oportunidade de ler o outro título da autora lançado pela Asa, “A Herança”, mas já ouvi falar muito bem desse livro também. Parece que Katherine Webb tem o dom da palavra e demonstra isso muito bem através das páginas dos livros. Até ao momento final nunca consegui adivinhar o que ia acontecer, qual das personagens iria morrer. Uma morte era certa, o mais difícil era descobrir qual era! Apesar de tudo se passar num curto espaço de tempo não notei aquela velocidade no decorrer dos acontecimentos que muitas vezes nos deixa decepcionadas por não serem muito desenvolvidos, nesta historia tudo acontece com uma calma enorme e descrições feitas nas alturas certas, deixando qualquer leitor maravilhado com a história que tem na sua frente. ( )
  anokas2757 | Mar 17, 2013 |
The story unfolds during two different periods, in 1911 and in 2011 and revolves around a vicarage and its inhabitants, past and present. The part of the book that refers to the past tells the story of a vicar, his wife, a woman servant and a visitor who is interested in natural 'spirits'. The relationships between the characters are complex and show the importance of the class system in the UK. The contemporary story is not as interesting and it focuses on the moody owner of the vicarage and a journalist interested in the past of the place. Some characters, such as Cat or the vicarage visitor are more interesting than others, but overall, they work well together. ( )
  alalba | Nov 6, 2012 |
You may also read my review here: http://www.mybookishways.com/2012/08/the-unseen-by-katherine-webb.html

The year is 1911, and young Cat Morley is to arrive soon at the peaceful house of Reverend Albert Canning and his wife Hester. Cat’s reputation precedes her, but Hester sees this as an opportunity to be charitable, since surely no one else will have her, and also pay her less than one normally would for her services. Hester sees herself as very much the proper vicar’s wife, but so far, her husband has not touched her in a “husbandly” way and her desire for intimacy with him, as well as for a child, has become a problem. Spending her days with feminine pursuits, she longs for the touch of a husband that turns away from her again and again. When Albert comes home one day, flushed and excited, thinking that he’s seen elementals, or nature spirits, his excitement is contagious, until “theosophist” Robin Durrant comes to stay with them, and throws the entire household into disarray. As it turns out, Albert has been neglecting his duties, not only as a husband and companion to Hester, but as a vicar, and Hester is increasingly alarmed that Mr. Durrant may be a negative influence.

Meanwhile, in 2011, a body is found, preserved, over 100 years old, with letters that seem to have been written by Hester Canning. Leah, a journalist, is asked by her former lover Ryan to decode the letters, find the story. So, she travels to Cold Ash Holt, and manages to meet Mark Canning, the Canning’s great grandson. He’s not eager to talk to her at all, but eventually agrees to an interview. Mark has been embroiled in some serious legal battles, and as curious as Leah is, her job is to research the story at hand, and hopefully Mark can shed some light on things. I really enjoyed these scenes with Mark as they tracked down the clues to the identity of the dead man, and especially loved how she delighted in exploring the Canning’s old house. In spite of this, I did find myself wanting to get back to Cat and her story, but it provided a really good parallel to the events of 1911, and also layered in some nice suspense.

Back in 1911, Cat is wild and damaged from her time in prison and when she meets a local man, George, she feels she might have met someone that could finally understand her, and spending time with him provides a much needed respite to her sweltering days of servitude. However, she’s increasingly concerned about her best friend Tess, left behind when she was released from the gaol. Evidently, Tess has been put into a workhouse, and Cat is determined to somehow get her out. United in the suffragette cause, Tess tired of it, even as Cat grew more and more enmeshed, and it’s because of the increasingly criminal activities of the women’s group that Cat and Tess got in trouble. Cat blames herself for Tess’s incarceration, and vows to make it up to her, somehow. My heart ached for Cat, and even for the naïve, sweet natured Hester, who married a man that was her best, childhood friend, but could never, truly be her lover, and is slowly wilting in the summer heat. I also felt so sorry for poor, confused, delusional Albert who spent most of the story with stars in his eyes for the beautiful, cunning, selfish Robin.

As for Robin Durrant… He is, frankly, a jerk; an insidious weasel that manages to insert himself in every aspect of the Canning’s lives. He’s conniving, underhanded, enamored of himself, and truly believes that others are put on the planet to do his bidding. He’s the houseguest that never leaves and devastates lives in the course of his stay. He sees the effect he has on Albert, and exploits that as much as he possibly can, while delighting in Hester’s discomfort and anguish. He doesn’t stop there, either. No one is really safe from his machinations, even Cat, and his insistence on “proving” that faeries are real, therefore indulging Albert’s fantasies of the existence of “elementals” is wreaking havoc on the household. He insists on setting up a darkroom in the family’s cold storage room, resulting in waste and food spoilage, but hey, developing pictures of so-called “faeries” is much more important than the family’s food stores, right? If this sounds familiar, it is. You’ll no doubt be reminded of the true story of the Cottingly Faeries: the 1917-1920 series of pictures taken by Elsie Wright and Francis Griffiths supposedly depicting the two girls with faeries. Many people believed in these photos for many, many years until Elsie and Francis finally confessed to them being faked, and Robin Durrant is, above anything else, a fake, and a charlatan. When Cat is drawn into Robin’s subterfuge, her desire to break free of a life of servitude is buried deeper and deeper in the lies that Robin creates, her own secrets, and liberty, threatened by a treacherous man determined to make a name for himself in an otherwise aimless life.

Katherine Webb’s writing is lovely and evocative, and she manages to set up a scene thoroughly without taking anything away from her characters. Cat’s pain is evident in everything she does. Raised in a household run by The Gentleman (you’ll figure out who he is soon enough), educated, taught to read, and indulged to a certain limit, she is still shown that she’ll never rise above her station as a servant. It’s like giving a bird wings, but not allowing it to fly. Even George’s love can’t dampen the fire within her. As Hester’s desperation grows, so does Cat’s, and Albert has lost his way so completely, Hester is not sure she’ll ever get him back. All of their secrets swirl together to create a miasma of misery, eventually coalescing into a finale that will shock, and devastate.

In The Unseen,the author has created a seemingly bucolic landscape in which to set the passions and pain of her characters, and it immediately pulled me in. The Unseen has all of the drama of a soap opera, played out against a time when a strong woman had no place in proper society and religious and spiritual ideas were in constant flux. Suspense readers with a love of history should enjoy this, and I also recommend it to anyone that loves a rich, wonderfully written, character driven novel. Highly recommended. ( )
1 vote MyBookishWays | Aug 5, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
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!
  jmchshannon | Aug 2, 2012 |
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Dearest Amelia,

It's the most gloriuos spring morning here, on a day of some excitment. The new maid arrives today-Cat Morley.
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"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..." --Cover.… (more)

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