It’s a rare book that can immerse me in another world and time when I’m teaching homestay students but Anna Mazzola’s debut novel, The Unseeing, managed to do just that. And it kept me up far too late while doing so!
Out today from Tinder Press, The Unseeing takes a real historical crime as its inspiration for this story of a gruesome murder, the two people condemned to hang for it, a petition for mercy, the ensuing Home Office investigation, and two young people caught up in a web of family, secrets and silence.
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 go willingly to their own death?
Sarah Gale is a difficult woman to have as a central character. When you meet her, she’s on her way to Newgate prison after having been sentenced to death for her part in a grisly murder. You receive the full force of the public’s reaction to her before you get to know her, something which will take the entire length of the book. At times, she comes across as cold and proud, even aloof, guilty of the crime she’s been charged with, and possibly even worse; at best, she seems enigmatic, a woman living in her head as the safest, sanest option. She keeps very much to herself, wary of saying anything, even to the appointed investigator.
Edmund’s equally interesting. He’s a young lawyer, young enough to still be idealistic but keen to make his mark and make a difference to the world. He’s flattered and excited by the appointment to a case he followed out of what seems more than professional interest. The case consumes him and causes him to neglect not only his own well-being but his own wife and child. He’s almost too intense in his investigation, so that you start to wonder if he’s seeing straight, and thinking clearly, or if he is being played by Sarah or subject to other pressures.
Is Sarah Gale playing a calculated game or is she being played? What’s at stake and who’s involved? It’s hard to know who to trust, who to keep tabs on and who to dismiss as a red herring. As Sarah and the investigator meet over the course of weeks, my opinion shifted and it’s all credit to Anna Mazzola’s clever writing that, despite the terrible descriptions of the crime, I found myself empathising with Sarah Gale and willing Edmund on to find a way to help her case and get all the answers. Even while beating him to figuring some of them out.
Open the covers of The Unseeing and you plunge into a London on the cusp of the Victorian era: people jostle and jeer and mice scuttle about; rankness seems to rise up off the pages and swirl about you in the fog and noise of the city; hunger and despair claw at you inside the prison where the cacophony of women’s vicious murmurs, clanking irons and clattering spoons against almost empty bowls seems constant in a place where near silence was the norm. I felt grubby and hungry and tense every time I surfaced from The Unseeing and gulped air down before diving back into its world. I particularly enjoyed reading the extracts from newspaper reports of the actual crime the novel uses as the basis for its story. These were an effective way in which to head up some of the book’s chapters that added to the tension and the very real sense of time running out for Sarah Gale.
The Unseeing is exactly the kind of historical novel I enjoy; packed full of period detail and peopled with great characters, it teems with life – to the extent of making me itch! – and is both an atmospheric, taut novel and an excellent debut.
The Unseeing is Anna Mazzola’s debut novel and it’s published today by Tinder Press. It’s available in hardback and as an ebook from Amazon UK, Hive and Waterstones. You can find out more about Anna and her novel on her Author Website, or on Facebook or on Twitter.
My thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy of the book.