One lie leads to a sickening web of deceit while new housemaid Cat Morley is stalwart in her willingness to foster her dreams of independence. Cat’s desire to free herself from a life of servitude gives The Unseen its dramatic heart, accelerating Webb’s multi-layered story that says much about the self-interest of Edwardian life. Weaving the stories of her characters in a way that our opinion of them changes several times, Webb focuses on the illusions and self-delusions of theosophy, the notion that “elemental” spirits inhabit the countryside of rural England.
This is a time of decline of the upper classes in England, who continue to delude themselves over their place in society, a position most characterized by Reverend Albert Canning and his wife, Hester. Hoping to lead a “Godly life,” husband and wife are still in love, although Albert selfishly refuses to satisfy Hester’s deepest, most sensual needs. Albert is more dedicated to his religion than to Hester, fostering a friendship with handsome Robin Durrant, who arrives at the Canning’s Berkshire Rectory with the intention of photographing the “elementals” that Ernest so lovingly admires.
Albert is drawn to Robin, a debonair, mercurial man who wants to capture the fairies as they shimmer through the bright water-meadows. Hopefully Robin's endeavors will allow Albert to find individual enlightenment,
to release him from the ties of flesh and help him find unity within a world of “intermediary spirits.” At first Robin is charming and delightful like a visiting dignitary,
and the vicar follows in his wake. Having just come from London and numb from a murky past of pain, Cat is nonplussed at the relationship; she wonders how Robin could make such an impression. Hester can’t quite escape the feeling that it is Cat who is the pariah. A sullen girl distracted by “unnatural urges,” Cat is perhaps the source of
the evil that has entered Hester's house to bring dark times upon them.
Cat’s resentment of her station in life is counterbalanced by “the sour worm of something fearful” that coils around in Hester’s gut. Both women represent the disconnected pathways between memory and thought that provides a time capsule into the suffragette movement and the journey of how a lost soldier from the Great War is found ninety years later with two perfectly preserved letters upon him.
For Leah, who in 2011 travels to the War Graves Commission in Belgium, the possibly of identifying the letter-writer only adds to the whole tale’s shimmer of curiosity.
Hailing from rural England herself, Webb brings great authenticity to her tale of grieving, frustrated people who find themselves constricted by sex and class, and
the young, indentured working girl who yearns for so much more than marriage. Amid the “blousy summer days and diaphanous clouds,” the individual voices of Cat, Hester, Albert, Leah, and Robin come alive,
heightening this delicate interplay between the social, sexual, and spiritual politics of the period.
The desire to learn the identity of the soldier pulls us into the story and increases the sense of moral ambiguity. As Leah reads the two letters again and again, she can almost feel the woman’s fear and desperation rising like a scent from the elegant lettering. The past finally begins to fall into place when Leah meets fragile Mark Canning, who tells Leah of a family scandal he knows nothing about except that back in 1911, some “weird guy” managed to convince a handful of people in “the existence of fairies.”
A rare literary gem, Webb’s tale is about how the “unseen” past is recreated in the present, how the present is in and of itself inaccurate, and how the diaphanous nature of fate is directly linked to family secrets. Bringing
her characters to life in both broad strokes and the tiniest details, Webb makes her point in the context of an involving, propulsive page-turner that leaves the reader wanting much more.