The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola

Based on a real murder that took place in 1836, The Unseeing is a cleverly crafted novel that explores and exploits the filters of human consciousness, its needs and its desires. Do any of us see clearly?

Sarah Gale has been convicted of aiding and abetting her lover, James Greenacre, in the murder of Hannah Brown whose body Greenacre dismembered and hid in different spots across London – the famous Edgeware Road Murder. For this, Sarah Gale will hang.

When various prominent figures petition for Sarah’s life, among them Mrs Elizabeth Fry, a young barrister, Edmund Fleetwood, is commissioned to investigate the evidence presented at the trial and to make a recommendation as to whether or not Sarah Gale should be spared the noose. Much to Edmund’s surprise, it was his father that suggested him for the commission.

Keeping his radical opinions on capital punishment to himself, Edmund’s attempts to decipher Sarah’s story involve an unravelling of his own. Sarah’s family, once factory owners in Dorset, are now near destitute. Edmund’s family, though more fortunate financially, is also beset by division and the pressure of appearances. Whilst Sarah lives under the threat of imminent death, Edmund’s recommendation will make or break his career. To build the tension even further, most of their conversations take place in the confines of Newgate Prison, a dangerous and unsanitary institution that starves and tortures its inmates.  

Moving between Sarah and Edmund’s perspectives, we watch as their fates cross the murky streets of Victorian London and become painfully entwined. What, in the end, are we prepared to do for those we love?

I really enjoyed this novel. The setting felt real and unlaboured. Dialogue felt authentic without being distracting and the use of quotations from contemporary publications of the time added even further to the sense of conflicting opinion and social change bubbling through the period and the novel. In particular, the position of women is explored. And through it all we are asked to question our own abilities to approach life without bias. Do we really see clearly or do we see through a glass, darkly (1 Corinthians, quoted at the start of Chapter 28)? How can truth be divorced from emotion?

The Unseeing is a historical crime thriller with a beating literary heart. I thoroughly recommend it and can’t wait to read Anna Mazzola’s next novel.

Next week, I’m reading The Song of the Stork by Stephan Collishaw.