I hadn't read "The Legacy", so had no idea what to expect from this book. It is very well-crafted indeed. Set in the long hot summer of 1911, as the country awaits the Coronation of George V, it follows the life of Catherine Morley, who is offered a place as a maidservant in the rectory of a sleepy Berkshire village. But Catherine has a secret past... The other main character is Hester, the vicar's naive young wife, who longs for a family of her own. Her life is disturbed by the arrival of Robin Durrant, a charismatic young man who is researching into possible sightings of 'water spirits' near the village. As the sultry heat continues, the characters' lives intertwine in a strange way... All of this is uncovered in modern times by Leah, a journalist who is researching the discovery of some letters found on the body of a soldier from the First World War...
I thought the book recreated the period very well, and the character of Cat is very well portrayed. I enjoyed the modern chapters too, I would have liked to see a couple of more of these, there seemed to be some very long sections in the narrative which needed a bit of relief.
I think the cover is a bit misleading, as this is not really a book about the supernatural in any form. It is a very enjoyable read, and will keep you occupied for a couple of days, as you try to guess the outcome of that long hot summer....
on 29 March 2011
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!
Author Katherine Webb cleverly combines simplicity and complexity within `The Unseen' to present a troubling tale embracing superbly sublime dialogue as the telling takes precedence over the tale. In addition to specific insights of life in 1911, such as the suffragette movement, there is a general enlightening portrayal of the huge gulf between political, social and religious aspects of today and just a few generations ago. The story is divided between the 2 years of 1911 and 2011 as the author skilfully evokes unsavoury elements of life via inequality of the sexes, absence of human rights, hypocrisy of false values etc. This is achieved successfully by capitalizing on dichotomies: freedom and oppression, loyalty and treachery, ignominy and honour, ignorance and enlightenment, integrity and deceit, and love and hatred. In spite of characters perhaps lacking in credibility this results in a remarkably compelling story, and though the plot may be fairly predictable Katherine Webb's narrative prevails throughout as fascinating and captivating.
I had previously read The Legacy by Katherine Webb and whilst I enjoyed it, I felt it was missing something. However, The Unseen definitely makes up for it, and then some. I thought it was an absolutely riveting read from start to finish.
It's the story of the vicar and his wife, Albert and Hester Canning, their new maid Cat Morley, and their new house guest, Robin Durrant. I loved Cat, she's such a strong-minded character, involved with the suffragette movement and so striking a blow for women everywhere. Her exchanges with the hugely overweight housekeeper, Mrs Bell, never failed to make me smile. Albert and Hester are newlyweds and very young, and Albert finds himself totally in thrall to Robin, a theosophist looking for elemental beings in the water meadows. The effect this young man has on the household is catastrophic.
The author manages to portray the stiflingly hot summer very well, and uses beautiful prose to describe the surroundings in the small village of Thatcham in Berkshire. I really had a strong sense of the area and how oppressed the characters felt.
There is a dual time narrative story, even though it's not mentioned in the synopsis. The main part of the story is set in 1911, but 100 years later in 2011 there is the story of Leah Hickson, a freelance journalist who is trying to find out the identity of a WWI solider.
This is an outstanding read. Towards the end every chapter appeared to be left on a cliffhanger, leaving me desperate to get back to it, and I felt quite moved by the end of it all. It's not a thriller (despite the murder), but it certainly thrilled me.
This book grew on me: the first half is perhaps a little slow then things begin to move and the story becomes more interesting. You get double or triple portions of everything - sparky heroines, bewitching cads, decent but done down heroes. Webb delivers this through the clever trick of dividing the novel between 1911 and 2011. In 1911, servant girl Cat Moreley has involved herself with the Suffragettes and been sent down to the country in disgrace. In 2011, Leah investigates the identity of a British soldier from the Great War whose body has turned up in Belgium. That identity is the link between the two stories, with the 1911 one forming most of the book. The 1911 story is, in my opinion, done much better, although the modern day strand allows Webb to slip in discoveries and facts not known to the earlier characters - for example through letters - so telling the earlier story from two perspectives.
We know that there will be a murder (this isn't a spoiler, it's on the book jacket) but to begin with Leah isn't aware of that - and nor of course are the 1911 characters. Then Leah finds it out, and the 1911 text begins to assume a more ominous tone - Webb succeeds very well here in building sympathy for her characters (even the unpleasant ones) so that the reader begins to fear for them. In the gripping final 100 pages, the murder happens, then but a big mystery remains - which I shan't say anything about as it would be a real spoiler.
All in all, a fun, engaging book which deftly portrays its heroines both in 1911 (where there are two, really, Cat and Hester, mistress of the house to which she is sent) and in 2011 as independent characters in their own right (especially Cat!) and yet, to varying degrees, subject to a collection of rather unpleasant men. Here, honours for caddishness are split evenly between the vicar, Albert, Hester's husband who spends his time searching for fairies in the fields (really), Robin, a charlatan (but charismatic) investigator of the occult, and (in 2011) Ryan who I will say nothing about at all (another spoiler).
As to why I have "only" given it three stars, perhaps that is slightly harsh, but I'm trying to reserve four or five for books that gripped me from start to finish and as I say above, I found it a bit slow at first - but would nevertheless recommend it overall.
This is a brilliant novel that l picked up on the spur of the moment and l am so glad l did. l read it in a couple of days and even though in parts it is gruesome with depictions of what the suffragettes went through during their incarcaration in Holloway it is a wonderful read with a cruel twist that is impossible to predict. I recomend it to everyone with an interest in the spiritual and Katherine Webb is terrific storyteller and l am now going to read The Legacy. I cannot rate this book highly enough - terrific...
on 14 April 2011
I read The Legacy on the strength of the huge publicity and was not disappointed. As I always do after a good book, I eagerly awaited the next from Katherine Webb and so bought The Unseen as soon as it came out. I read it over two days, totally immersed, what a luxury.
Ms Webb does not disappoint. Characters in The Unseen are expertly drawn; the main character, Cat Morley, has been impeccably researched, and from the outset I was with her and wanted her to triumph; Robin Durrant, so charming and handsome, but watch out; Rev Canning - a tricky character to describe yet both believable and precise - and then Hester Canning, some lovely descriptions of her struggles with married life (you need to read it to see what I mean).
The plot is very well researched and deftly handled. The denouement, played out over several pages, had me gripped and unsure of the outcome until the very end.
I do recommend this book, my favourite of the two, and look forward to the next.
Oooh I liked this novel.
I would have given it 5 stars, but I found it quite slow to get going. It is one of those novels where the modern day characters are researching a historical event and the narrative keeps switching between the two time periods. Unfortunately, I thought that this occurred a bit too often at the beginning. The historical story is much more interesting than the love life of the modern characters. This modern sideline continues throughout the novel and is something that I could easily have done without.
As I said, the historical side of the story is much more engaging. A new servant with a shady past arrives in the vicar's household. The vicar attends a lecture on theosophy, the vicar becomes obsessed and then convinces an eminent theosophist to come to stay with him. This theosophist later reveals pictures of an 'elemental' - the fairy-like guardian of a plant - to prove to the world that they do exist. The novel delves into the servant's history and follows her in her new life. It also follows the effect of the theosophist's stay on the household. All in all, lots to keep you interested. In the end, I was so wrapped up in the story that I couldn't go to bed before I had finished it - that after having repeatedly putting the novel down over a couple of weeks whilst reading the first few chapters!
I would definitely recommend reading this novel, and I will be getting Webb's earlier novel as well.
on 1 October 2013
I'm surprised at all the glowing four and five star reviews for this book: I thought it was a solid three-star holiday read, quite enjoyable but not particularly original or memorable.
It uses one hoary old device, a story which unfolds after the discovery of a mysterious old letter, to launch another one - two parallel, alternating narratives set in past and present.
This time it's set in 2011 and 1911 (though mostly the latter) and tells the tale of a journalist investigating a body found on a WW1 battlefield, and its links to a strange set of events in an English country vicarage before the war. Leaning heavily on the true story of the Cottingley fairies fraud, it relies on the gradual build-up of atmosphere in an isolated house during a long, hot summer, as a new maid recovers from her imprisonment as a suffragette, and a sexually repressed young couple come under the spell of a guest with a dangerous obsession. Murder ensues, but not until page 324, which makes for a bit of a dull and repetitive read.
Unfortunately, as so often happens in these books set in past and present, the modern sections are a bit risible - beautiful young journalist escaping from unhappy relationship meets troubled yet handsome young man in the course of her inquiries ... we can all guess the rest. And if she'd been a better journalist and started her investigation in the archives of the local paper (it finally occurs to her to go to the library, but not until page 311), then this would have been a very short book!
There are sections describing the role of the more working-class suffragettes, and how the Cottingley fairies photographs could have been taken, which are very well done. If only the author had ditched the Mills & Boon modern sections and written a Sarah Waters-type story set in 1911 about the two most interesting characters, vicar's wife Harriet and her maid Cat, it would have made for a much more effective book.
But perhaps that's just me: this isn't at all bad, just something I'd prefer to borrow from the library rather than buy and keep on the shelf to read again.
on 29 April 2011
Katherine Webb is an exceptionally talented author. Her dialogue is believable yet exciting, her scenes drawn with beautiful clarity and precise detail, and her characters are fresh and intriguing. The Unseen is mainly set in the stifling summer of 1911, and follows the private lives, the lies and deception of a group of characters who live in a Berkshire rectory. These scenes are interspersed with the tale of a modern-day journalist who is trying to uncover the mystery of a murdered soldier.
Various issues are entwined in the main narrative - feminism, spirituality, romance and friendship, but they never seem to interfere with the central story and the author has found the perfect balance between historical accuracy and dramatic tension.
I raced through this book - and even found myself going to bed early just so I could spend more time reading it. The Unseen really is a cracking read and comes very highly recommended!