Book Review: The Unquiet Heart by Kaite Welsh
By Larry ClowApril 5, 2019
The Unquiet Heart is Kaite Welsh’s sequel to the acclaimed The Wages of Sin―and once again set in moody fin de siecle Edinburgh―Sarah Gilchrist finds herself trying to prove her fiancé’s innocence in the midst of his murder trial.
The second entry in Kaite Welsh’s Sarah Gilchrist series finds the amateur detective/medical student getting her life back on track following the events of the series’ first novel, The Wages of Sin. Doing so is difficult in 1893 Edinburgh, where Sarah is an outcast in all parts of her life. Women medical students are viewed as, at best, an amusing novelty and, at worst, as the sign of civilization’s decline. Even among her classmates, she stands apart—the daughter of a posh English family, Sarah’s parents exiled her to Scotland after a suitor assaulted her and Sarah publicly named her rapist. And among Edinburgh’s elite, Sarah carries the taint of scandal—a sordid past, an unconventional education, and a rumored involvement in a murder investigation.
Sarah has a full schedule, and The Unquiet Heart finds her calendar filled to bursting. The grueling pace of her medical studies continues and, much to her dismay, her mother has arranged her engagement to Miles Greene, the milquetoast son of well-regarded Edinburgh family. The engagement means Sarah is on the hook for dinner parties, social events, and the other duties that come with being an upper-class fiancé. Sarah chafes under the attention and obligation and wonders how she can escape—and then one of the Greenes’ servants is murdered.
The Unquiet Heart is a busy book, with Sarah moving briskly from classrooms to drawing rooms and back again. It’s so briskly paced with so many competing plot lines that, for long stretches, the central mystery takes a back seat. Readers here for Sarah’s deductive prowess and the twists and turns of a murder case in late-Victorian Scotland will be disappointed. Sarah frequently tells her allies that she’s in the midst of a murder investigation, but there’s little sense of urgency. The revelations are sporadic—scenes in which Sarah and her confidants discuss the case yield little progress and Sarah’s conclusions seem haphazard.
The problem is there isn’t enough time for the book’s overlapping genres, and so each aspect suffers. While the mystery is a standard exposé of the secrets behind the upper-classes’ polite façade, it’s solidly constructed, with compelling characters and believable motivations propelling the puzzle. Welsh moves too slowly at first and then too quickly and Sarah gets few chances to shine as a detective. The historical aspects—of Sarah’s travails in medical school and her fight for independence in an era of seemingly unending restrictions on women—are compelling but are often glossed over to make room for more sleuthing and family drama.
That family drama is one of the book’s high points. Sarah’s mother crashes into the book in a torrent of fine clothes and disdainful looks and she’s a great, complex foil. Sure, there’s a murderer about, but Sarah’s mother is the real adversary here, scheming and plotting against the protagonist in the hopes that her various machinations will come to fruition. The tension results in some lovely passages like this:
I had felt imprisoned in the sanatorium, but it was nothing to how I felt here in the bosom of my family with a gaoler I loved despite myself. Part of me – the dutiful daughter I had thought long since buried – wanted to trust her. To believe that I could be happy in the life she had planned out for me in such meticulous detail. But the woman I had become rebelled against it. I would not suffocate, walled up in a marriage of convenience arranged purely to keep the gossips at bay. I would earn my freedom and raze the whole edifice to the ground if I had to.
The Unquiet Heart is heavy on the romance, too—not between Sarah and her fiancé, of course, but between Sarah and Gregory Merchiston, her professor/crime-solving mentor/love interest. Merchiston, like Sarah’s mother, is a fantastic counterpoint. He’s brash, arrogant and driven by his demons, putting him at odds with Sarah, who, despite her own traumas, remains calm, methodical, and focused. The book lights up during their scenes together:
He started at my voice and then snorted without looking up. ‘Come to reject me again, Miss Gilchrist? Or are you here in your official capacity, the plucky young lady sleuth with her head full of detective stories, thinking she knows better than the polis? Tell me, what do you deduce from this scene?’
My heart ached for him. ‘That you might be better off leaving the whiskey for another night if you want to be in a fit state to lecture in the morning.’
He grunted. ‘I have half a dozen young whelps who barely need to shave to escort around the Royal Infirmary tomorrow morning. Rest assured, they’ll be as hung-over as I am.’
‘And with such a fine mentor, who can blame them?’
That verve gets lost elsewhere, though. There is too much going on in The Unquiet Heart and not enough room to let it breathe. What should be an immersive trip through the cobblestone streets and posh dining rooms of Scotland feels more like a too-fast carriage ride, over before it has really begun. Let’s hope that Welsh takes a more leisurely pace in future installments and gives Sarah Gilchrist and her adopted city more of a chance to shine.