The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola (2016)

‘The Unseeing’ is fiction spun around historical fact.

Hannah Brown was brutally murdered on the eve of her wedding, in 1937, and parts of her dismembered body were found in different sites around London.  James Greenacre, the man she would have married, was arrested. At first he denied all knowledge of what had happened, but he would change his story. He would claim Hannah’s death had been an accident and that he had paniced and disposed of her body because he knew that suspicion was likely to fall on him,  because he had fallen foul of the law before..

27245142.jpgSarah Gale was tried as an accessory and, after offering no defence, she was convicted. She had a child but no husband, and she had lived with Greenacre as his ‘housekeeper’ until he had taken up with Hannah Brown, who he believed to be alone in the world with independent means.

After Hannah’s disappearance, Sarah returned to Greenacre’s household and was seen to be attempting to pawn Hannah’s belongings, and wearing her clothes.

Greenacre was found guilty and he hanged, but, after a petition for mercy, Sarah Gale’s sentence was commuted to transportation. She and her son were sent to Australia, and no more of her story is known.

Anna Mazzola’s story considers some of the unanswered questions about Sarah Gale.

Why was she granted a petition?

What did she know about the death of Hannah Brown? What did she do?

Why did she offer no defence?

Edmund Fleetwood is a fictional character. He is a young lawyer, and he is delighted to receive a first commission from the Home Secretary. He must investigate whether there are grounds to give Sarah Gale a pardon. Because the evidence against her is circumstantial; because she is the mother of a young child; because Elizabeth Fry has taken up her cause; because she has the support of the general public ….

The lawyer visits James Greenacre before his execution. He speaks with Sarah’s sister, who is looking after her child and is terrible worried. And he visits Sarah herself, who is willing to talk to him but unwilling to answer the questions that he needs answered.  Edmund is inclined to believe her, but the question of whether or not she is telling the truth, of whether the image she presents to him is real or a construct, is always looming. The answer to that question is always in doubt,  and carefully timed revelations made considering that question fascinating.

Anna Mazzola’s writing has many strengths.

Her descriptions are wonderfully vivid, evoking the terrible atmosphere of Newgate prison.  She allows her characters to speak, quite naturally, of the way the law is weighted against women and against the poor. I believed in all of those characters; and in everything that was said and done in that prison.

She constructed a compelling story that worked with the real, historical events. It is a  credible – but rather improbable – account of the crime, and it respects the memories of the real people who lived through these events.

Her characterisation of Sarah is particularly striking, showing a woman struggling with the secrets that she chooses not to share in court; even though she know that she will suffer from the consequences of that decision.

I have to say that the setting up of the story is stronger that its playing out. Because the author gave every character a story, because she was careful to explain everything, I came to feel that there was a little too much going on. Real life is rarely tidied up so well, and that made events seem less real.

The story was strongest when it focused on Sarah Gale. On her life story, on her criminal conviction and on her life in prison.

Edmund Fleetwood was a credible and engaging character, but it was his own story that unbalanced this book for me. I wish that he had been simply the agent of Sarah’s story.

That said, the plotting was very effective.

There were some lulls in the story, but there was always more than enough to hold my interest.

I had to keep turning the pages, and I am very glad that I did.