THE HIDDEN PEOPLE by Alison Littlewood

May 17, 2017 - 6:35 pm No Comments

THE HIDDEN PEOPLE by Alison Littlewood

Jo Fletcher Books / 384 pgs / £14.99 hardback / ISBN 978-1848669901

Reviewed by Carol Goodwin

We like to think we live in a rational world, but irrational beliefs still lie close to the surface. Animal shelters that can’t re-home black cats as people consider them “unlucky” and the recent hysterical reaction to “scary clowns” are only a couple of examples. The horrific consequences of one such belief is the central theme of this novel.

In the middle of the 19th century, a young man leaves behind his comfortable life in the city to see to the affairs of his pretty young cousin. She has been killed in a dreadful way by her husband who apparently believed she was a fairy changeling. (This central incident and the inspiration for the novel is based upon a real event). Feeling that his family have neglected his poorer relation, and with an unrecognised romantic fixation with her, the protagonist wants to understand and uncover the events and reasons which led to her death. When he arrives in the small rural village where she lived, he finds an almost universal belief in the existence of changelings, the Fairy folk and their interference in the lives of people who attract their attention.

When he moves into her “unlucky” cottage, halfway up the fairy hill, he finds himself drawn into this miasma of superstition. What seems easy to believe in the city, bounded by iron railways and modern machines is much harder to hold onto in the “endless summer” of the village. When he is joined by his young, newly pregnant wife, the stage is set for another tragedy as he also struggles to understand her apparently “changed” behaviour in this new environment.

This is a wonderfully atmospheric novel. There is an excellent attention to detail in this book. The careful consideration that has been paid to the vocabulary and style of the prose, so that it is appropriate to the Victorian setting, yet still being eminently readable is exceptional. There was an added verisimilitude to me in that many of the old superstitions were reminiscent of those some of my older relatives held – eg not wearing green because it was the fairies’ colour, or not walking through a fairy ring. The contrast between the new rational, industrial world of the city and the older, unchanged and superstitious countryside is well done without being heavy-handed. The author keeps the narrator, and the reader reeling (like the Fairy dancing road in the book) between whether to believe the superstitious or the more mundane and rational explanations of his cousin’s death. As he digs deeper into village life and the circumstances surrounding his cousin’s death, the story builds to a climax, and the true cleverness of this story becomes more apparent. The reader becomes more and more intrigued as to who the actual hidden people are? Do the fairies exist or does the belief both engender and conceal more human motives and wickedness?

When I started this novel, I expected a fairly straightforward dark fantasy but the book has far more depth to it than that. I loved the difficult balancing act that the author credibly maintains throughout the book and the complexities of character in the narrator and his wife in particular. It is not a gruesome horror book, apart from one somewhat graphic but justifiable scene at the beginning so would suit many who like intelligent, well-written fiction with some fantasy elements. CG

(Review copy kindly donated by Jo Fletcher Books)

Leave a Reply