Tuesday, 5 July 2016

The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola

review by Maryom

London, 1837 - Sarah Gale is being held in Newgate prison, sentenced to hang after being found guilty of aiding and abetting her former lover, James Greenacre, in the murder of his soon-to-be wife, Hannah Brown. Throughout her trial, Sarah offered barely any defence but when she lodges an appeal against her sentence, the Home Secretary, Lord John Russell, is sufficiently sympathetic to allow an investigation to go ahead. Idealistic but impoverished lawyer, Edmund Fleetwood, is appointed to the case, feeling almost from the outset that Sarah has been manipulated by Greenacre, and that the sentence was too harsh. Though Edmund tries to make Sarah talk about events leading up to the murder, she continues to keep quiet about what really occurred; he is convinced she is hiding something, possibly through fear of retribution, but what could it be, and for whom would Sarah sacrifice everything?

I wasn't sure at first that this book would appeal to me - the story is based on real events, a notorious murder which shocked London as the unfortunate victim was hacked into pieces and bits of the corpse dumped in various locations around the city; not quite my kind of read. Having picked it up though, I soon became immersed in Sarah's plight and the battle of wills between her and Edmund. Despite facing the hangman, she's determined to keep her secret at all costs, while he's fixed on uncovering it and saving her. At the same time, hints are subtly laid that stop the reader quite falling for Sarah's story, and it comes as no surprise when, from finding himself attracted to her, Edmund becomes convinced she's been duping him all along. It's difficult to see who Sarah would be covering up for, or who, as the mother of a four-year child, she'd risk her life for, and it's certainly one of those books that reserves its best twist for the end.

 Through Sarah's experiences, the author brings to light the social situation of an unmarried mother, and the dreadful physical conditions in the prison, the bullying by staff and other prisoners, and the lack of hope among the inmates are made painfully clear; it's hardly surprising that Sarah dreads a prison sentence almost as much as death. Without detracting from the plot, mention is made of the work of prison reformers, and of the attitude of forward-thinking lawyers like Edmund who were already trying to abolish the death penalty. Although not strictly accurate with reference to the real Sarah Gale, this is a book I'd recommend for anyone with an interest in social history around the time of young Queen Victoria coming to the throne. I certainly found it a far more gripping read than I'd expected.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - 
 Tinder Press
Genre - 
Adult fiction, historical crime

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