It is 1837 and the city streets teem with life, atmosphere and the stench of London. Sarah Gale, a seamstress and mother, has been sentenced to hang for her role in the murder of Hannah Brown on the eve of her wedding.
Edmund Fleetwood, an idealistic lawyer, is appointed to investigate Sarah’s petition for mercy and consider whether justice has been done. Struggling with his own demons, he is determined to seek out the truth, yet Sarah refuses to help him. Edmund knows she’s hiding something, but needs to discover just why she’s maintaining her silence. For how can it be that someone with a child would willingly go to their own death?
Criminal injustice is a hot topic these days—from Serial and the various podcasts it inspired, to Making a Murderer, to the stories we see in the news about wrongful convictions or inexplicably light sentencing. But it is certainly not a modern phenomenon and it is one such case that forms the bones for the story told in The Unseeing. Anna Mazzola’s powerful debut novel is set in the year that Queen Victoria ascended the throne and looks at the conviction of a woman for a crime she might not have committed in one of the most infamous cases of the early nineteenth century.
The Unseeing isn’t so much a whodunnit as a character study of the book’s two protagonists, Sarah Gale and Edmund Fleetwood. Hannah Brown’s murder is the linchpin of the story, the reason Sarah and Edward meet, but the final resolution of who actually killed her and why isn’t actually the most important thing in the narrative, even if it is a great denouement. No, the most important element in the narrative is the relationship between Sarah and Edmund and the way their association changes both their lives. In some ways, Sarah is far more of a cypher than Edmund. We learn more about Sarah’s history and we witness her time at Newgate and her fears and hopes, but Sarah feels very reserved and self-contained than Edmund. Sarah’s story is about survival, both physical and spiritual, and about protecting those you love at all costs. Edmund’s story is about his struggle with his need for justice and for doing what is right and learning that the two aren’t always the same.
Over the course of Edmund’s investigation they form a true bond, one might even say friendship, though laced throughout is the suggestion that in Edmund’s case this is layered with infatuation and a desire to prove his father wrong. Edmund has a hard time dealing with his attraction to Sarah, since he’s already married. But he also starts doubting his own objectivity, does he believe Sarah innocent because the evidence makes him believe it or does he want to believe she’s innocent because he’s attracted to her? Mazzola skilfully lets Edmund negotiate his daddy issues, the complex politics of the situation, and his strong sense of social justice or rather the lack of it.
Through both Sarah’s viewpoint and Edmund’s we get a clear view of the horrendous situation in Newgate, the way the people confined there are treated and have to live is dreadful. We’re also shown how tenuous life in general was, unless you were part of the upper class and even then everything can change in one fell swoop. Life in the nineteenth century was hard for the lower classes and even if help was available, there was always a price. Sarah is helped by a charitable group, The British Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners. And while they are well-meaning and in some cases feminists avant la lettre, they often carried a sort of moral rectitude and judgement that held the women to impossible standards.
While Sarah’s case is drawn from history, main themes of the case — domestic violence, coercive control, the functioning of the criminal justice system — are still current today and because of that the case feels very modern in the telling. Much of Sarah’s story is a psychological examination of abuse and how this affects people and whether this constitutes mitigating circumstances for the crimes of which Sarah stands convicted.
Mazzola’s writing is captivating and completely drew me in. she has a deft touch with her characters’ voices—if you put the book down and picked it back up, you always knew who of the two was the main viewpoint at that moment. I also loved the contemporaneous newspaper clippings at the start of new chapters, as they showed how the case was viewed by the general public at the time. The Unseeing gave me feels. The narrative made me incredibly mad at the various people who had let Sarah down and at Edmund for the way he neglects his wife. And I haven’t even mentioned the odious James Greenacre. Yet I also felt sorry for Edmund whenever he had to interact with his father. And the final resolution to the book was sad, but also hopeful and completely satisfying.
With The Unseeing Anna Mazzola has delivered an excellent debut telling a powerful story, that is fantastic in its own right, but is made even more fabulous because of its resonance with current events. I absolutely adored this book, it’s one of my favourite books of the year so far and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.