Every now and then a debut novel comes along that stands out from the crowd. The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola is one.
Sarah Gale is a seamstress, prostitute and single mother, incarcerated in Newgate Prison, sentenced to hang for her role in the murder of Hannah Brown. Young, ambitious lawyer, Edmund Fleetwood, is appointed to investigate Sarah’s petition for mercy, yet she refuses to help him. Convinced that Sarah is hiding something, and unable to understand why she won’t act to save her own life, Edmund must discover what really happened on the night of the murder. In the process, he discovers some unsetting truths.
The exact details of the Edgeware Road Murder – a real murder case that became a press sensation in 1837 – remain shady to this day. Sarah, convicted of aiding and abetting James Greenacre in the gristly crime, refused to defend herself, stating only that she knew nothing of it.
Sarah Gale’s silence during her trial and incarceration is fertile ground for a novelist and Mazzola, a criminal justice lawyer, has clearly relished both the research and the possibilities. Real testimony and newspaper clippings are weaved throughout. Sometimes such embellishments can detract from a story but here they add depth to it. Mazzola’s legal background shines through too, especially in the character of Fleetwood, whose pragmatic approach to finding the facts is soon challenged.
It’s hard to believe this is a debut novel. Mazzola’s prose is wonderful and the characters are complex and convincing. The cleverly woven plot is revealed gradually with tension maintained right up to the closing lines. Sarah is particularly well drawn; fascinating, frustrating and sympathetic by turns, echoing Fleetwood’s experience of her as she refuses to help him prove her innocence.
I particularly enjoyed the gritty depictions of poverty stricken 19th century London and its injustices (reminding me a little of, among others, Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White or Sarah Waters’ Affinity). The depiction of Newgate prison, with its harsh conditions and reprehensible inmates, is particularly visceral. But for me, the book’s message about the position of women at the time stood out as one of the strongest themes. Without legal or financial rights, many women’s lives were determined by men. As such, Sarah could come across as a victim, but Mazzola avoids this, ensuring that Sarah finds a way to choose her own fate, even if it’s a shocking one, as she offers up a plausible and satisfying solution to the mystery.
This is a novel that raises questions about the nature of truth, secrets and manipulation, the lies we tell ourselves and what we choose to believe. And it’s a gripping read. If you like your historical crime beautifully written, intelligent and genuinely moving, this is one for you.