“The Hidden People” by Alison Littlewood (Review)

{ my rating: ★★★★ }

Have you ever wondered if folklore and fairytales have more truth to them than reality? The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood pits the most level-headed Victorian in Albert “Albie” Mirralls against a country village of never-ending sunshine where the villagers say the “fair folk” lie in wait to steal the most becoming of its women into their world, and the proof is supposedly in the shrewish changelings they leave behind in place of the stolen.

Upon hearing that his cousin was killed (burned alive) by her own husband under the charges of her being such a changeling, Albie takes it upon himself to travel to said village—called Halfoak—and settle his cousin’s affairs. He hosts her funeral, which none from the close-knit village attend, which stirs in him such an angered passion that he concludes he must undertake defending his cousin’s honor no matter who accuses her and assume the role of her bringer of justice.

Positive Aspects:

Albie is a fascinating character yet he is not interested in being likable, and so a connection with him depends on the reader’s tastes. He carries the classic Poe narrator characteristics such as being an observer of a strange encounter, having wild dreams and a frantic imagination; he even skirts madness in plenty of scenes. I loved watching him spin bizarre occurrences through his leveled head, watching how his narration winds up and unfolds as he tries to make realistic sense of what makes no sense. 

True to traditional gothic heroines yet stronger than most stands Helena, his wife of recent, a woman with shocking black hair and a rather haunting face, but her manners and carriage should not be taken lightly: she has a storm brewing under her skin. That storm has a lot to do with the sudden devotion Albie has to a cousin he barely met when he was but a boy. In fact, I should say that this is quite a female heavy novel even though the narrator is male, and each have their own storm brewing. 

Aside from the amazing primary and secondary characters and storyline, another outstanding aspect of The Hidden People is how much Mrs. Littlewood trusts the reader to draw their own conclusions. Whilst the novel is an addictive Victorian mystery with a touch of folklore, it is first and foremost a study on what makes a monster and what makes a man. After all, a close-knit village trusts each other no matter what bizarre gossip goes around, which then raises the question: how does such a village distinguish a lie from the truth? Are the “fair folk” real or are they common lore that can be used to cover up a deliberate secondhand murder? And if there’s so much room for manipulation, then who is to say that any person that’s shown you help can’t be the heart of the manipulation?

There were also dream sequences that were straight out of gothic tradition. They were visceral yet dark fairytale-like, creepy yet gorgeous, underlined with sensuality yet blackened with darkness and decay. If there will ever be a more memorable book published on my birthday, it would have to be an undiscovered Poe novel.

Negative Aspects:

Whilst the atmosphere of Halfoak was a treat to imagine with all the wealth of Mrs. Littlewood’s descriptions, some sections slowed the momentum of the already slow-paced build. I also had a minor issue with the dynamics between the women of the village versus Albie. They only appeared when he was visiting him or when they were delivering some inkling of revelation about the case of his cousin’s death. Never was a woman shown in her space outside of blink-and-you-miss scenes, which was a true shame because they all had such rich stories to tell outside of Albie’s sight.

The single major issue I had with the story though was that Albie and Lizzie’s past was the reason why Albie became so obsessed with getting to the bottom of her murder. She was a stunning sight even as a child, with a voice more beautiful than lovebirds, so we are told, and as Albie dives deeper into Halfoak’s secrets and culture, he hints to the fact that he believes he should have married Lizzie when in Lizzie’s secret journal he discovers she would have liked for him to make a wife of her. He and Helena have a mutual love and respect for each other as established by the first chapter, yet Albie and Lizzie have nothing but a fleeting meeting at the Great Exhibition of 1851…no intimate place for sure. It is too simple to claim that Albie’s obsession with finding her killer was the reason why he came to feel in love with her when he didn’t know a thing about her, proven by the fact that he was shocked when his so fair of a cousin wrote in such grammatically terrible Yorkshire speak. Albie and Helena should have had a more developed obstacle between them, or Albie and Lizzie should have at least had a few more memorable meetings than the one for me to buy that they had chemistry worth dropping all estate matters for. After all, his infatuation with her is the reason this novel begins. 

Conclusion:

The Hidden People is not perfect, but it is the near perfect picture of how fiction can remind us of crafty, nasty things about human nature, some that can make us more heartless than storybook villains. 

It has moments of visceral horror scenes while also having moments of creeping sci-fi, but above all it is a dark fairytale to indulge in whilst tucked in bed with a sweet cup of tea. 

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