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The Unseen: A Novel by Katherine Webb

The Unseen: A Novel (original 2011; edition 2012)

by Katherine Webb

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1642772,634 (4.13)11
melaniehope's review
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Katherine Webb's second novel is easily as good as her first. I loved it! A page turning plot, vivid characters and a wonderful evocation of the life and times of rural England in 1911. Put a repressed vicar, his naive wife, a handsome opportunist and a suffragette together and what do you get? It is a love story, a murder mystery and a criticism of women's rights or rather lack of them. It is also a story about the relationships and barriers between the classes and the sexes in the time before these began to crumble. Her descriptive prose is brilliant, you can feel the hot humid weather and see the mists rising of the water meadows, as well as smell the sweat of the taverns and sense the horrors in Cat's past. It is, in short, a very good read indeed! ( )
  melaniehope | Apr 18, 2012 |
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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 |
Set at the end of the Edwardian era, “The Unseen” captures an England that is quickly disappearing. It is told from the perspectives of Hester Canning, the pastor’s wife, and Cat, the family’s new maid with a mysterious past. While the majority of the novel is set at the Canning rectory in 1911, pieces of the story are also told from the lens of Leah, a journalist in 2011 who is drawn to the rectory’s history by the discovery of a nearly-century-old body and a letter. Initially, the sudden switches in time during the novel are a bit disconcerting, but as Leah’s story connects to that of Hester’s and Cat’s, her tale becomes as compelling.

Hester, the somewhat naïve pastor’s wife, is mystified by the odd behavior of her husband, Albert, who has become obsessed with spiritualism and the existence of fairies. His fascination leads to a visit from Robin Durrant, who studies spiritualism. Robin’s arrival shortly follows that of Cat’s, and the presence of the two newcomers affects the household in many and unexpected ways.

The novel in some ways reminded me of one of my favorite authors of all time, Dickens, in its wonderful slow build, rich description of setting, and deft exploration of class differences. Cat’s character questions and challenges societal rules, particularly the role of women and classism, and casts light on the social ills that accompanied this period of history. She also serves as a vehicle to expose the secrets lying beneath the less-than-perfect façade of the rectory. Cat is a complex and fascinating character, both powerful and vulnerable, and quickly became my favorite character in the novel.

It’s a novel that tackles a great deal: social ills, spiritualism, mystery, the fine line between obsession and madness. It maintains a lovely balance throughout, and made me at once want to rush ahead to find out what happened next, and slow down to savor the rich language. A delicious read. ( )
  Litfan | Jul 22, 2012 |
This novel takes place in two times: the present day, and in 1911. In the present day, Leah is asked by her ex to help identify a World War One soldier for the War Graves Commission; a soldier who has two letters in his possession. Back in 1911, Cat Morley, a young house maid recently let out of jail for taking part in suffrage demonstrations, joins the rural household of the Reverend Albert Canning, who has recently seen fairies while taking a walk in the countryside, and his wife, Hester. Cat isn’t the only new member of the household, though; Robin Durrant, a Theosophist, has come to investigate the reverend’s fairies and enjoy an extended stay with free room and board. Everyone in the rectory has secrets and ambitions.

The narrative is ruled by a feeling of tension that never seems to let up. The sultry summer weather in the story parallels the emotional landscape; the slow build up to a thunderstorm that is days and weeks in coming. Cat’s backstory is slowly revealed as she builds a future. Hester begins to learn what is wrong with her marriage. Robin is shown to be a rather different person from his public persona- pretty much everyone turns out to have hidden depths, for good or for ill.

I loved this story and found myself falling into the 1911 plot line, unwilling to put the book down. Cat is a thorny person and unlikely protagonist, but I was rooting for her and I found myself trying to will her to make the right choices. The other 1911 characters aren’t nearly as vivid as Cat, although Robin comes close. The zeitgeist of the times plays a large part in the story; women’s suffrage, class distinctions, the interest in the occult; all make their mark on the characters.

The present day storyline, while interesting, did not seem to add a great deal to the story. I think that it could have been told without the 2012 plot line, really. Not that I disliked it; it just seemed weak compared to the 1911 story. ( )
  dark_phoenix54 | Jun 17, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Summary: The vicarage of the small English town of Cold Ash Holt receives two new occupants in the summer of 1911. The first is Cat Morley, sent to be a maid for the household, despite having recently be imprisioned. Cat knows that she should be grateful to have a position at all, but is too strong-minded - and scarred by her recent experiences - to settle easily into the life of a servant, particularly when the lady of the house is so painfully naive about the realities of the world. The second visitor is Robin Durrant, a noted theosophist invited by the vicar in the hopes of capturing evidence of nature spirits living nearby. Cat is sure that Robin's smoothly charming exterior masks something darker lurking within, and he is clearly taking advantage of the fraught situation at the vicarage. But Cat is no stranger to having secrets herself, and she knows the power that such secrets hold... power that can, in the wrong hands, lead to murder.

Review: This book is a bit of an anomaly: even though nothing much happens for at least the first few hundred pages, I was completely absorbed. Because if there's one thing this book has in abundance, it's atmosphere. Webb's writing is lovely, and of the sort that instantly grabbed me, and pulled me into the world of an English country summer, and then didn't let me go while it slowly ratcheted up the tension. It's very much the novel equivalent of the period before a summer storm, where everything is still and muggy and quiet, and everything is just holding its breath waiting for things to finally break. That "break" doesn't come until late in the novel, but for the most part I stayed absorbed in the slow build leading up to it, only occasionally getting frustrated that they weren't just getting on with things already.

There were a number of other things I enjoyed about the novel as well. First, I was surprised (and pleased) to realize that it used one of my favorite literary devices, the parallel modern/historical timelines. The modern-day story involves a journalist who is helping an ex-boyfriend discover the identity of a WWI soldier as part of the War Graves Commission, and some letters that he has on him lead her to Cold Ash Holt. The two storylines weren't always as balanced as they could have been - long stretches spent in the historical story meant that I occasionally forgot about the modern one - but on the whole I think it served to round out the book quite nicely.

I also thought Webb did a nice job handling the various secrets and mysteries that make up the heart of her story. The answers to some of the mysteries were telegraphed way in advance, but a few still surprised me, and often even things that I guessed correctly in general terms didn't play out the way I thought they would in the particulars. Overall, I think this book probably could have been tightened up in places, but it still sucked me in to its oppressive atmosphere of secrets and lies and muggy summer heat. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Recommended for people who like their mysteries tense, psychological, and atmospheric. I also think this might appeal to fans of Downton Abbey - not because of any real similarity in plot or setting (the Cold Ash Holt vicarage is a much, much smaller household), but because there's a similar element of upstairs/downstairs tension that runs through the novel. ( )
  fyrefly98 | Jun 9, 2012 |
Last year Webb's The Legacy was one of my favorite summer reads -- I inhaled it overnight, caught up in the drama and the skin-crawling life choices the characters made. It was delightful. So needless to say, I was eager for Webb's next offering and this one doesn't disappoint.

As with The Legacy, The Unseen features two story lines -- one in the past, one in the present, that eventually connect -- but unlike Webb's previous novel, I was less wild about this technique. The modern story line was interesting enough, but didn't quite feel right with the story, given how detailed and compelling the historical story was.

Beginning in 1911, we meet Hester and Albert Canning, who have a sexless marriage that confuses naive Hester. Their new maid, Cat, has a notorious past -- she was arrested for her involvement with the suffragettes -- and Hester's husband takes up theosophy when he believes he sees fairies nearby. An expert in the occult, Robin, comes to investigate, and his presence discomforts Hester to say the least. Over the summer, unsurprisingly, thing seen and unseen welter, fester, boil, and rise to the surface with dramatic results. Interspersed with this story the contemporary one. Leah, a journalist, is contacted by her ex-boyfriend who works for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. An unknown soldier is discovered in Belgium with letters from an H. Canning. Her investigations lead her to meet the Canning's descendants, where, eventually, the story comes together.

I loved Cat -- I want a whole novel about her, frankly -- but I enjoyed Hester, too. For me, Webb's women -- no matter how amoral, or misguided, or pig-headed they might be -- are the hook of the story. I feel like I know them, I empathize with them, and even when I want to shake them, I want to hug them. As a historical novel, you feel immersed in the era without being loaded down with tons of detail or narrative, so those who aren't wild about historicals might enjoy this one. The feel of this for me is really thriller rather than straight up historical.

As with The Legacy, I couldn't put this book down -- there's a ton of tension in the story and I needed to get to the end. This is a perfect summer beach read -- you'll want a cocktail to mellow you out as you race along -- as it has enough meat to keep you focused but enough heart-racing moments that you'll be transported for a bit. ( )
  unabridgedchick | Jun 5, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Oh Katherine Webb, what are you doing to me? You take some of the most delicious, fantastic ideas and put them into a story that I cannot resist and then you mix it with the most frustrating, aggravating details. But I can't stop reading and I struggle with myself because I want to give your story five stars, but then there are so many little nagging elements that drag it down for me!

Okay, now that the rant is out of the way, let me tell you what I loved and what I hated about The Unseen.

First of all - mystery in 1911/2011 England? Yes please. Throw in mildly supernatural elements, prim and prissy Victorian-style husband and wife, maid with a bad-girl vibe, and shyster and it's the recipe for a delicious, dark, romantic English story.

What Katherine Webb does remarkably well is set her story up. I loved Cat and her addition to the household, I loved the dynamics between Hester and her husband, and the little scraps of letters which served as a catalyst to move the story forward. I loved the romance which flares up and the backbone Cat displays and the slowly unraveling story of what happened in Cat's background. Everything about each one of these things was perfectly paced and beautifully described. I couldn't ask for more.

Here's what I hated though, and though these were BIG things for me during the reading, upon reflection they are just nagging, I really wish she would have done better because I believe she could have! I felt as if Webb was underestimating the intelligence of her reader a bit. The entire 2011 setting was boring, and frankly toward the end of the book I was actually tempted (although I didn't) to skim or just skip it completely. I felt as if it's sole purpose was to give us a reason to investigate the story and that the book would have been completely fine without it. There was no real resolution that made it absolutely necessary.

Also I was a bit confused about how detailed a 100 year old corpse could be when it was found. Maybe I just don't know enough about corpses - so I'll leave that one be.

I think a lot of the things that bothered me about this book also bothered me in The Legacy by Katherine Webb, so I'm wondering if it's just her style of writing. If you like authors such as Kate Morton, I think it's possible you will love Webb's books as well, just don't expect the same level of story-crafting that is available in Morton's books. ( )
  TheLostEntwife | Jun 4, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This was another dual story with a historical story set in 1911 and a present day people trying to figure out the events we are seeing unfold in the past. I think these have become my favorite kind of book and this one is no exception Katherine Webb is a true storyteller, if you are a fan of her book The Legacy I know you will like this one too. If you’ve never read Katherine Webb what are you waiting for?

The 1911 story centers around the Reverend Albert Canning & his wife Hester, the Theosophy “expert” Robin Durrant and new maid Cat who is fresh from the gaol but is she a murderer? a thief? Or an innocent Suffragette? Trouble is brewing in this house but does it stem from the Cannings chaste marriage, Robin Durrants overzealous belief that have infected the Reverend to such a degree it is changing his whole outlook on life or does it come from Cat and the un-asked question of what she was in prison for in the first place.

In the present day story Leah is called in to help identify a body by, the War Graves Commission, the only hint to his identity are some very cryptic letters he is found with, so Leah sets out to discover who this man is and make sense out of the odd letters. Yes there is a bit of a romance here in this story but it doesn’t deter from the storyline.

I enjoyed this book it really kept me guessing and when the reveal came I was a bit shocked and saddened. The characters are all very fleshed out and you did end up caring about them or hating them as the case may be. Well maybe hate is too strong a word let’s just say the majority of the men are not very likeable with a few exceptions. I had no idea what Theosophy was and was surprised it was the seeing of sprites and fairies and such. This was inspired by the famous Cottingly fairies story about the little girls who became famous for their fairy pictures which were later on revealed to be a hoax.

The two stories blended very well together even though I did end up liking the historical story better than Leah’s story. I liked Cat the best because she was the one woman looking to the future and she is a Suffragette with a mind of her own and sharp tongue and not afraid to use either! This book kept me wondering and guessing as to what happened since it starts out with the cryptic letters and leaves you wondering just what happened right to the very end. It is very well written and I would recommend to fans of Kate Morton.

4 Stars ( )
  susiesharp | May 31, 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. ( )
  Kasthu | May 27, 2012 |
The Good Stuff

Absolutely, positively engrossing - you are hooked from the very first chapter
Author is brilliant at setting the mood and setting of the story - you really feel like you are part of the story
Loved the switching back and forth from 1911 to 2011 - gives it a unique twist
Fabulous well rounded characters both in the past and the present
Lots of suspense, murder and secrets with just a hint of the occult
Cat is a truly fascinating character - full of strength and fire, trying to fight back against the constraints of being a women in the early 1900's
Kept me up late at night reading I so badly wanted to know what happened
Will definetly be looking for a copy of the Legacy by the same author
A perfect story for a cold winters night or to lose yourself in at the cottage (or beach)
Loved how the two time period plots intersect without being unbelievable
Could see this one being turned into a movie - has it all love, sex, murder, women's rights, past and present intersecting - fabulous stuff
The Not So Good Stuff

Drags a wee bit half ay through - some stronger editing would have made this into a perfect 5 Dewey's
Wanted to smack Hester quite a few times, but her character is very true to the women of the time
Favorite Quotes/Passages

"Cat serves the dinner, digusted by the luxury, the excess; the way the theosophist turns down the meat, his expression blase, sanctimonious. How many others in the world have need of meat? Cat wonders. When now it will go back to the kitchen and spoil, and be thown away and wasted because the cold store is full of this thoughtless young mans' toys."

"Would you have been content if you had been told, when you were still a child; you shan't be a poet, or a minister, or a politician. You shall be a cleark in a bank. Would you have been content, never to have been allowed to try other things? Never allowed to find out what you wanted to do, what you wanted to be?"

Who Should/Shouldn't Read

Mystery/Suspense lovers will thoroughly enjoy this one
Fans of historical fiction will also be fascinated by this
4.5 Dewey's

I received this from WilliamMorrow in exchange for an honest review ( )
  mountie9 | May 22, 2012 |
This is a book about secrets and mysteries and any manner of unseen things and I dare say there is not a character in this book that does not have a secret.
The book begins with a present day mystery. Leah Hickson, a freelance journalist, is contacted by her ex-boyfriend Ryan who is working in Belgium for the War Graves Commission, a group who is tasked with identifying the many bodies of unknown soldiers that turn up every year. But this one is particularly interesting, well preserved in a bog, and he thinks that Leah might help by finding out who he is and what is the meaning of the two carefully protected letters that the dead man was carrying. And in the process gaining an interesting story for her to write.

Her investigation takes her back to England and the small village of Cold Ash Holt and to the residents of the rectory there a 100 years ago, the Reverend Canning and his wife Hester. 1911 was a stifling hot summer, and the presence of the reverend's guest, the young, handsome Mr. Durrant, a rising star in theosophical circles, will make things all the more uncomfortable. Well, for everyone but Mr. Canning, who seems oddly taken with the young man and his rather strange ideas.
Then we have Cat, a young servant girl who was just released from prison in London and taken in as a supposed act of charity by the rectory..and perhaps because they can get away with paying her so little. What her crime was and what she suffered in prison that effected her so much is not her own secret though, one truly surprising one that is not revealed until the last pages.
And then there is the murder, of course, and where there is a murder, there is a murderer...

I really enjoyed this book for a number of reasons.
I liked how the book is set in these two time periods, the present day and a century ago, and while the historic one is perhaps the more important, both are very entertaining and weave together so well. It was a time when the country was on the edge of great change, a breakdown of the servant class, the rise of the suffragette movement, the Great War, that would kill so many, just around the corner and all these play some part in this story.

OK, no book is perfect and yes, maybe this one dragged a bit in the last third. But it is a minor issue, because there is a lot to like about this book.
There is fraud and lust and obsession and fear and love and one tragically sad death by murder, all wrapped up in not one, but two good stories. Happily, stories that are neatly and satisfyingly tied up in the end, even if many readers might wish that things had turned out differently for at least one character. Some of the secrets may be figured out earlier in the book by the careful reader. And that is fine, because I am pretty sure there are a few you will not see coming but make perfect sense once you find them out. We will find out who that forgotten, dead soldier is and why he died with those two letters in his pocket. It is a great yarn, with some very good, very memorable characters, good and bad, and a lovely setting in the sleepy Berkshire countryside, past and present, and a good story to be told. ( )
  caitemaire | May 17, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This interesting novel intertwines two story lines in one, unfolding a historical mystery.

In 2011, journalist Leah is called upon by her ex-boyfriend to investigate the identity of a British soldier found buried in France, having died in WWI. The soldier was carrying with him two carefully preserved letters hinting at a personal mystery in his background. Leah is fascinated despite herself and travels to Thatcham, England, where she finds Mark Canning, a descendant of the letter writer. Mark is dealing with his own problems but also gets swept up in the mystery.

And in 1911, one hundred years previous, Cat Morley, a free-spirited, intelligent, and vivacious young woman is sent to be a maid in the house of Hester Canning and her husband Albert, the vicar. Cat has been imprisoned and tortured for the crime of promoting women's suffrage and while she is still haunted by the demons of her experiences in gaol, her convictions are as strong as ever and she fights for her own personal freedoms as much as possible. Meanwhile Hester, despite having been married to Albert for over a year, finds herself still a virgin. Her husband, it seems, is far more interested in Robin Durrant, a charismatic young (male) theosophist who believes in fairies and has come to Thatcham to take photographs of the fairies in the water meadows outside of town--and incidentally, prove to his father that he is just as worthy as his physician brother. When these troubled and turbulent characters collide, disaster is inevitable.

An interesting story, with some interesting characters and a well-researched portrait of the time period. I couldn't help but feel, however, that the story was a bit cluttered with random extraneous drama. There was a bit about assisted suicide, a bit about someone sleeping with his step-sister, the possibly-gay vicar and his sexually ignorant wife...put it all together and it starts to sound a bit soap-operaish. The story would have been stronger if the author had stuck to tackling just one or two "big issues." In addition, the story was a bit unbalanced; we see much more of the daily and inner lives of the 1911 characters and relatively little of the present-day characters. In fact, the story would have worked perfectly well with the frame device removed entirely. But those are relatively minor quibbles in the grand scheme of things. This is a perfectly serviceable novel, if nothing terribly exciting or new. ( )
  kmaziarz | May 16, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
The Unseen is a story that tackles a variety of issues that both upstairs and downstairs of an English manor. The mistress of the house Hester wishes her house to be full of children but her husband the Reverend Canning is not romantically aroused. Unfortunately Albert Canning is more aroused by Robin Durrant, who entices the Reverend by his magnetic charm and beauty and tales elemental beings. Poor, poor Hester has no idea that her beloved Bertie is gay!

This triangle is the mystery of a World War I solider discovered in Beligum discovered fairly intact along with two letters from Hester Canning to the deceased soldier. The mystery pisques the interest of journalist, Leah. She is determined to indentify the solider and solve the mystery of the letters.

In addition to Robin Durrant during the summer of 1911, comes Cat Morley, the new maid, to the household after a bout with the law. What crime did Cat committ? Her crime was that she was protesting woman's right to vote and the overall equality of the masses. Cat is confused by her lot is life since the Gentlemen of her former Manor home was actual her father who has an affair one of his maids (Cat Morley).

The book offers the reader history, class wars, woman's right to vote, love, lust and mystery. Who would not want to read this latest offering of British author, Katherine Webb. ( ) ( )
  Gingersnap000 | May 9, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This was my second ER book, and definitely way better than the first. It's one of those books that makes me so glad I sign up for ER books, because I might never have heard of or read this great book otherwise.

[The Unseen] contains two storylines, one set in the 1900s, one set in 2011. A woman in 2011 is trying to identify the body of a dead soldier, found with two mysterious letters on him. This man, and the letters, are connected to a rectory in the 1900s that, while peaceful perfection on the surface, contains many harmful secrets within.

What I especially liked about this book was how it explored how small moments, and the entrances and exits of people into each others' lives, led to deception, cover-ups, and even murder. Exploring everything from fairy photographs to the suffragette's movement to love itself, this is a book I would strongly recommend. ( )
2 vote seasonsoflove | May 7, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I tried very hard to like this book, but I just couldn't get into it, even after 100 pages of slogging. The present day characters were dull, and the past characters were wooden and uninteresting. I couldn't get engaged with the troubled marriage of the preacher and his wife, nor the troubles of Cat, their maidservant. If you like a slow-moving mystery, this may be for you, but the pace was too glacial for me. ( )
  dizzyweasel | May 5, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
A body of a young man is found in Belgium by the War Graves Commission and a young journalist is called in to help identify him. He has two letters, that have been sealed and are still readable and it is these letters that kept me reading, I really wanted to know what was hidden under the floorboards. So back to 1911 we go, to a rectory with a very naive young woman, a maidservant with a past, a cold remote maybe homosexual preacher and a young man who is a theosophist and see fairies in nature. Can't say I really liked any of the characters in the past, but I did like the characters in the present day though one doesn't get to hear that much from them. Think the book would have been better served had it been a bit shorter but it was an interesting atmospheric, rather dark read. ( )
  Beamis12 | Apr 23, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Katherine Webb's second novel is easily as good as her first. I loved it! A page turning plot, vivid characters and a wonderful evocation of the life and times of rural England in 1911. Put a repressed vicar, his naive wife, a handsome opportunist and a suffragette together and what do you get? It is a love story, a murder mystery and a criticism of women's rights or rather lack of them. It is also a story about the relationships and barriers between the classes and the sexes in the time before these began to crumble. Her descriptive prose is brilliant, you can feel the hot humid weather and see the mists rising of the water meadows, as well as smell the sweat of the taverns and sense the horrors in Cat's past. It is, in short, a very good read indeed! ( )
  melaniehope | Apr 18, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
The Unseen is a book about a fairy hoax, set in 1911 and 2011 Cold Ash Holt, England. Much like another author I enjoy, Kate Morton, Katherine Webb has a talent for blending past with present and telling stories within stories. I thought this book was well-written, well-researched and original. There are many mysteries for the reader to unravel and each character comes to life with his or her own personality and voice. I enjoyed the backdrop of the women's suffrage movement as well and I thought it gave the book another facet to think about. The present-day characters are the least well-thought out in the entire book and it does lean a bit more towards the story set in the past, but, on the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and will be checking out other books by this author as well. ( )
  Vashtia | Apr 13, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This story will intrigue readers from beginning to end. It's filled with mystery, murder and romance, and the ending was a surprise. Although the story transitions between 1911 and 2011, it primarily takes place in 1911. Those who are historical fiction fans will enjoy this book, and I will recommend this book to many of my fellow readers. ( )
  jsprenger | Apr 12, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This is another book I received from the Library Thing's Early Reviewer program. I really enjoyed this novel. I liked the suspense the author created by only revealing some of the stories secrets in once era, 1911, and then watching the modern characters discover them in 2011. I thought the characters were very well drawn, even the ones that appeared weak in the story were very well written and thought out. I have to say that this was not a feel good book by any means, but that fact does not make it bad by any means. The author's descriptive powers are very acute. I would definitely recommend this novel to a friend as a very thoughtful and suspenseful book. ( )
  bennettsmama | Apr 8, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I liked the historical elements of this book. There is a mysterious feeling that runs throughout the storyline of this book and leaves you guessing as to what is going to happen next and about the characters' pasts. The story did tend to drag in some areas but overall a good book. I enjoyed the characters and thought that the author did a good job developing them. It's hard not to care for the characters and for what happens to them throughout the story. The author tells a good story and I will definitely read her other books in the future. Highly recommend this book if you like a little romance, with intrigue with a hint of mystery all mixed in. ( )
  lilkim714 | Apr 7, 2012 |
I have read and enjoyed the Legacy and was keen to read this one. The book takes place in both 1911 and 2011. Leah is contacted by an old boyfriend and asked to help solve a mystery and find the identity of a dead soldier. The soldier has two letters on him which intrigue Leah and indicate a mystery and she is keen to find his identity. The search takes her to a sleepy English village and the Rev Albert Canning and his wife Hester. During the summer that the story takes place two new arrivals come to the village. Cat Morley, is a young woman recently released from prison after a minor run in with the law, and Robun Durant is a leading expert in the occult enticed to the vilage by tales of elemental beings in the fields nearby. Hester is a kindly naive young woman. Her husband meantime becomes entirelyy caught up in Durant's work. Cat herslef finds love and a place for herself in the village and plots her escape. Leah goes to the village and meets up with Mark Canning a relative of the family and works with him to solve the mystery.
The book was full of intrigue, mystery and even murder. It was well written and kept me interested right to the end. It painted a very real picture of life in the village at that time. I felt quite sad at the end of the story, for how things turned out for some of them. ( )
  kiwifortyniner | Feb 4, 2012 |
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