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Katherine Webb – The Unseen

June 13, 2012

LibraryThing Early Reviewers59. The Unseen by Katherine Webb (2011)

Length: 460 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction

Started: 23 May 2012
Finished: 27 May 2012

Where did it come from? The LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.
Why do I have it? The description said English countryside, spiritualism, and fairies, and I was intrigued.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 02 April 2012.

A man seeking proof
of nature spirits proves to
be no fairy tale.

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.

“Upside down she sees a damsel fly, not an inch from her nose, clinging to the underside of a pale iris leaf – electric blue body, glittering rainbow wings vibrating, warming up for flight. So many hidden things, such hidden beauty, she thinks. Such lovely things truly do exist, and yet they are never enough for us. We must always search beyond.” –p. 220

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First Line: Dearest Amelia, It’s the most glorious spring morning here, on a day of some excitment. The new maid arrives today-Cat Morley.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 330: “As she spoke, a think man in a dark blue cagoule appeared, walking briskly around the corner, slumped into a kind of apologetic cringe.” – a lightweight usually knee-length type of anorak

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. June 13, 2012 7:48 am

    I do like a lot of tension but I also like action. I’ll have to think about this one.

    • June 15, 2012 6:05 pm

      Kathy – I think you’d probably enjoy this one, even if it’s more tense than action packed.

  2. June 13, 2012 12:41 pm

    I really liked The Legacy by this author, but I wasn’t blown away by this one. Glad you enjoyed it more!

    • June 15, 2012 6:06 pm

      Kailana – I will have to keep an eye out for The Legacy!

  3. June 13, 2012 1:20 pm

    I admit, i was bummed I didn’t snag this one up. I think I’ll see if I can find it on audio. Looks like a book that will motivate me to do some housework. ;-)

    • June 15, 2012 6:06 pm

      Christina – ooh, I didn’t even think about this on audio. I bet it’d be good!

  4. Maya Panika permalink
    June 18, 2012 4:32 am

    Despite not being in *anyway* a fan of Downton, this sounds just my cup of tea. Your description makes me think of A Month in the Country. One I’m adding it to the ‘to read’ list, anyway.

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