Set in London in 1837, Anna Mazzola’s ‘The Unseeing’ is the story of Sarah Gale, a seamstress and mother, sentenced to hang for her role in the murder of Hannah Brown on the eve of her wedding. After Sarah petitions for mercy, Edmund Fleetwood is appointed to investigate and consider whether justice has been done. Idealistic, but struggling with his own demons, Edmund is determined to seek out the truth. Yet Sarah refuses to help him, neither lying nor adding anything to the evidence gathered in court. Edmund knows she’s hiding something, but needs to discover just why she’s maintaining her silence. For how can it be that someone would willingly go to their own death?
The murder of Hannah Brown fascinated the people of Victorian England, but this shocking gruesome crime has fallen out of public memory. Anna Mazzola has taken a forgotten real life crime and turned it into an intriguing and gripping story. When body parts are found around London, it becomes clear that something very very bad happened to poor Hannah Brown. Her fiance, James Greenacre is arrested and his companion, Sarah Gale finds herself accused of aiding and abetting him. Edmund Fleetwood is a lawyer, tasked with appealing Sarah’s innocence and getting her conviction over turned.
I love Victorian fiction, particularly if it involves crime or wrongfully incarcerated women and ‘The Unseeing’ grabbed me right from the first page. The writing is wonderfully descriptive – Anna Mazzola’s writing fully evokes the sights and smells of Victorian England, and those sights and smells are not always pleasant.
“Back out on Newgate Street, Edmund was hit by the stink of horseshit and cesspits, the shouts of hawkers, the clatter of hoofs, the crack of a coachman’s whip”
Life in prison for Sarah is claustrophobic, dank and chilling. It’s brought to life through the book’s pages and you can’t help but feel that you are right there with the prisoners living the horrific experience alongside them.
“at six o clock the machinery of the prison rattled into action: the strident note of the bell. the thud of boots on corridor floors, the rasp of keys in locks, of bolts being drawn back and the clank, clank, clank of door after door opening, like a train leaving the station”
I was totally gripped by ‘The Unseeing’, very early on it becomes clear that Sarah is hiding something about the murder. And whilst I did guess what it was, it did not lessen my enjoyment of reading her story. There was still a twist that I didn’t see coming.
One aspect of the book that I really liked was the extracts of newspapers, books and documents from the same period featuring at the start of each chapter. It’s a great extra touch and really does give you a sense of the era. Another aspect of the era that is outlined is the treatment and opinion of women, which is something I find both fascinating and chilling in equal measure about the Victorian era – it was too easy for a husband to be rid of a pesky wife by claiming she needed to be in an asylum.
“‘Remember that, while women are often very good liars, the are generally less capable of independent and complex thought.”
It’s easy to see why ‘the Edgeware Road Murder’ was a firm penny-dreadful favourite and a newspaper sensation for months. We’ll never know what happened on that Christmas Eve in 1837 but Anna Mazzola has done a stellar job at creatively filling in the blanks.
BOOKISH CORNER RATING – 5/5 STARS
Anna Mazzola is a criminal justice solicitor based in London. Whilst ‘The Unseeing’ is her debut, it has won awards including the Brixton Bookjam Debut Novel competition and she came runner up in the 2014 Grazia First Chapter competition judged by Sarah Waters.
With thanks to Barbara Ronan at Headline for my copy
If you like ‘The Unseeing’ then you should check these out:
‘The Inventions of Murder’ by Judith Flanders
‘The Ballroom’ by Anna Hope
‘The Butcher’s Hook’ by Janet Ellis
‘The Painted Bridge’ by Wendy Wallace