Welcome to Berkshire, England, and the compelling story in Katherine Webb’s second novel, The Unseen, published this week by William Morrow.

Weaving her tale between 1911 and 2011, Webb has constructed a story that examines the class structure of Edwardian England set against the deception and illusion that occur one summer in the sleepy village of Cold Ash Holt.

In 1911, the Rev. Albert Canning and his naive wife Hester cannot begin to imagine how their quiet lives will be changed when their new maid, Cat Morley, is absorbed into their small, rigid household. Cat has her own past to deal with, and longs to escape a life in service.

Hester knows something is wrong with her young marriage, and yearns for a child from her devout husband.  Then Canning becomes fascinated with idea of theosophism, and even more so with one handsome young practitioner, Robin Durannt, who is drawn to the village by Canning’s almost hysterical vision of elementals in the water meadows near the Canning’s home. When he welcomes Durannt into their home, Canning sets up a series of events that summer that will irrevocably change the lives of everyone living in The Old Rectory.

Fast forward to 2011, where journalist Leah Hickson needs a great story to bring her out of her depression and sink her investigative teeth into once more. Finding the identity of a World War I soldier recently found in a bog in Belgium seems to provide the work she needs, although it is not without its own entanglements.

When she’s shown several letters preserved with the soldier, linking him to Cold Ash Holt, Leah’s hunt begins. What she cannot know at that point is how caught up she will be in the past she unearths, and how the lives of those people and their ultimate fate will impact her own wounded heart.

The women are strong characters in this novel, where grief and passion are a counterpoint to all of their actions. You will be drawn into caring about them and their futures, in this highly engrossing novel that rushes to a strong climax.

Readers familiar with Arthur Conan Doyle’s article that embraced what is now called the Cottingley fairy photographs will understand the highly charged atmosphere that revolved around the occult at this period. Webb has done a wonderful job of recreating that furor and the emotions it raised, even as she has crafted a poignant and skilled novel that will have you remembering her characters, long after the last page is turned.

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