What I thought:
This book sounded right up my street. And it was. Based on an historical true crime, The Unseeing follows the incarceration of Sarah Gale in Newgate Gaol for the murder of Hannah Brown on the eve of Hannah’s wedding to James Greenacre (Sarah’s lover, who is also convicted and sentenced to hang).
The sense of time and place was brilliantly done; I could really feel the cold and squalid conditions of the gaol and picture the London chaos and fog and horseshit.
The murder of Hannah Brown was a particularly brutal one and came to be known as the Edgeware Road Murder on account of it being where her torso was found (her head was later found in the Thames and her legs were found sticking out of a sack by a labourer). It was alleged that James and Sarah murdered Hannah and then disposed of the various body parts but there were questions around Sarah Gale’s part in the proceedings due to her reluctance to say anything during the trial.
In The Unseeing, Anna Mazzola has tried to fill in the gaps of what could possibly have happened back on that fateful Christmas Day in 1836. Why did Sarah Gale not defend herself (especially when she had a 4-year-old son)? Was she afraid of Greenacre or was it something else? I sometimes have a problem with books based on true stories but take the artistic license too far or the plot meanders so far away from what is more likely to have happened. But although many of the characters in The Unseeing are fictional, they are necessary as a device with which to explore what could have really happened (Edmund Fleetwood in this case, who is a young lawyer trying to make his name on a big case like this and tries to get Sarah to tell him what really happened). Despite the fact, that much of this book is fiction, it felt perfectly plausible to me and also added a bit more drama to a grisly tale that relatively little is now known about. I was glad that I didn’t look up what ultimately happened to Sarah Gale, as although so little is known about her, I found that the book really pulled me along, chapter by chapter, in my quest to find out what might really have happened. We’ll never know, of course, but Mazzola certainly gives us a damn good yarn to mull over.
I really enjoyed this book. Not only was there the fabulously authentic Edwardian/Victorian society, but I also loved how Mazzola brought to the fore the plight of women in those times – their lack of rights, lack of a voice, lack of dignity, and Elizabeth Fry’s social and prison reforms to help them (I would actually like to read more about this now). An incredibly atmospheric book and one I highly recommend.