The body of a soldier killed during World War I has just been discovered. At the time of his death, he was carrying with him two letters, written by Hester Canning, the wife of Reverend Albert Canning. But who is the dead solider and what could be the significance of the letters, referencing many other letter that have gone unanswered? Hester wrote from the Rectory situated in Cold Ash Holt, referencing her pregnancy in one and in the other relating that her son was three years old and thriving.
Leah, a reporter, agrees to assist her former boyfriend, Ryan, attempt to identify the dead soldier and solve the mysterious meaning of the letters. A hundred years ago, in 1911, it seems that Robin Durrant, a would-be-famous theosophist, spent time at the Rectory as a guest of the Cannings. Charming, handsome, and quite persuasive, Robin exerted great influential over Albert, who desires to help Robin prove that elementals, i.e., fairies, actually exist. Albert is determined to lead a life of purity sufficient to convince the elementals to reveal themselves to him again. He insists that he did see them once during an early morning walk in the nearby woods. And Robin is bent on securing fame and admiration for himself by capturing the elementals in photographs — no matter the ends to which he must resort.
Meanwhile, young Cat Morley has been released from gaol and come to live with the Cannings as one of their servants. Cat found herself on the wrong side of the law when she participated in public demonstrations in support of securing the right to vote for women. Cat is unlike other servants, unwilling to follow orders blindly and accept her assigned station in life. Cat wants more than a life of servitude and is ready to risk anything in order to escape the Canning household and live freely with the man she has reluctantly come to love.
But will the price of freedom be too high?
Author Katherine Webb’s second novel, The Unseen, tells a highly unusual tale, but explores familiar literary themes. The result is a deliciously mesmerizing mystery that deftly keeps readers guessing until nearly the very end.
Webb juxtaposes two stories involving several strong female characters: modern-day Leah follows a trail of clues, hoping that she will learn not only the dead soldier’s identity, but the reason why Hestor Canning continued writing letter after letter to him, even though he apparently never answered a single missive. Her journey leads her back to Cold Ash Holt and the now-dilapidated Rectory where Mark Canning, the great-grandson of Albert and Hester, is holed up in hiding. But why is the surly Mr. Canning hiding from the media, as well as the other residents of the village? At first he does not believe that Leah truly does not recognize him or know of his unwanted notoriety. But she manages to convince him (and then promptly Googles him) and soon enlists his aid in the search for answers.
The action jumps back to 1911 where Cat Morley, a young wisp-thin woman of only twenty-two, has been taken in by the Cannings after losing her position in the house of The Gentleman and spending two months imprisoned. Confinement has changed her — she suffered terrible atrocities — and she wants nothing more than to be free. Cat is headstrong, determined, and decidedly unlike other servants, especially her stern and unyielding supervisor, Sophie Bell, who cannot understand why Cat is not more grateful to simply have food to eat and a bed in which to sleep. But Cat has always straddled two worlds and when she boldly sneaks out of the Rectory at night, no one is more surprised than her when she finds love and the promise of a better future. Financial security and a chance for a better life is within her grasp. Will she fulfill her dreams?
Albert Canning is a lost soul looking for someone or something to make him complete. Married to the beautiful, young and thoroughly naive Hester, he professes love for his wife, but, in the midst of his obsession with proving the existence of elementals, refuses to consummate the marriage. Hester is bereft, feeling rejected, betrayed, and confused. She wants only to be held and loved — she knows that she will never bear a child unless Albert fulfills his husbandly duty to her, even though she is not sure precisely what that duty entails. She is extremely suspicious of Albert’s growing dependence upon and infatuation with the dashing Robin Durrant, but lacks the sophistication to articulate precisely what troubles her so much about their relationship. Webb expertly hints at the real nature of Albert and Robin’s relationship through the character of Hester, who seeks advice from her married sister as Albert seems to slip further and further away from her and under the spell of Robin. Robin indeed has secrets of his own and when the resourceful Cat uncovers information about his past, the two form a dangerous alliance.
Webb reveals key details, past and modern-day, at perfectly-timed junctures that compel readers to forge ahead in order to learn more. A visit to Mark Canning’s father, tragically suffering from early-onset dementia, confirms reader suspicions and accelerates the story’s pace as Leah uncovers more and more pieces of the puzzle. She also learns much more about Mark and the events that have exiled him from his life and family, as she fights her feelings for Ryan, knowing that if she returns to him he will only hurt her again. In the process, Webb explores things and persons that are seen and unseen, even though they may be right in front of us, delving into matters of social standing and power, women’s rights, and spiritualism as the needy and gullible Albert retreats further and further from Hester and reality into fanatacism. Deception, betrayal, and the sweetness of unexpectedly finding love all loom large in Webb’s lushly descriptive narrative.
The result is delightful mystery with a gothic sensibility that is a worthy follow-up to Webb’s debut work, The Legacy. The Unseen would make an excellent book club selection with plenty of themes and meanings to discuss and debate.