Book Review: The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Genre: Horror, Historical Fiction
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books (November 1, 2016)
Length: 384 pages
I’m always up for a good changeling story, and Alison Littlewood is an author I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. Thus when I found out about The Hidden People, I saw this book as the perfect place to start. There’s no doubt that the story is utterly atmospheric, full of the kind of beautiful, exquisite detail that slowly creeps up on you. Littlewood also writes wonderfully and has a flair for bringing a historical setting to life. And yet…I don’t know if I felt as fully engaged as I could be. This book had all the elements of a dark historical mystery or good horror tale, but lacked the pacing of one, and I think that’s where it might have missed its mark.
It is 1851 when a young Albie meets his cousin Lizzie for the first time at the Great Exhibition. It was a grand day of celebration for industry, modern technology, invention and design, but Albie only had Lizzie on his mind, and there she stayed for many, many years even though the two of them never saw each other again.
Fast forward to 1862, Albie is just sitting down to dinner with his wife Helena when his father breaks the horrible news: Lizzie, Albie’s pretty cousin that he met more than ten years ago, is dead. She was burned to death by her husband, who claimed his wife had been replaced by a changeling. Enraged and grieving, Albie takes it upon himself to visit the village where Lizzie had lived in order to pay his respects and seek justice. But upon his arrival, he is shocked and even more furious to see how deeply superstitious the people are. His cousin hasn’t even been buried yet, left in her twisted and charred state. And during the funeral, no one showed up. It appears that all the talk of magic and fairies is more than just that; the villagers actually believe that Lizzie has been fae-touched and is now anathema.
But Albie’s obsession with Lizzie means he is unable to let this injustice stand. He refuses to leave the village, even when his wife Helena comes to join him for the funeral and then tries to convince him to let it all go and return to his own life and family. After all, she reminds him, he’s only met his cousin once and that was more than a decade ago.
But apparently, Lizzie made quite an impression on Albie. The problem was, no one around him was convinced, and to be honest, neither was I. It’s unfortunate that this sets the precedent for the rest of the book, but also not surprising, considering the entire basis for Albie’s obsession rests on this one scene at the start of the book which lasts no more than seven pages. We’re told that Lizzie’s beauty, sweetness and charisma got under our protagonist’s skin and stayed with him for many years, but I never believed it. This huge disconnect made it hard for me to understand a key part of what made the main character tick, and as such it made sympathizing with him throughout the novel an uphill battle—especially when his preoccupation with Lizzie started straining his marriage.
Then there was the pacing. While I loved the dark, haunting, gothic style of The Hidden People, the story itself was very slow to build, taking away from the tensions the author was trying to convey. Littlewood’s prose is gorgeous, and she paints a detailed picture of rural village life in the mid-1800s complete with the different dialects and other cultural nuances, but the meticulous nature of her writing style also makes it difficult to stay engaged. That’s a shame because there’s really an excellent story in here, but I also can’t deny that at times I struggled with the restrained speed at which the plot unfolded.
Still, I’m happy I got to discover Alison Littlewood’s beautiful writing, and despite the book’s flaws I thought The Hidden People was worth my time. There’s a lot of good stuff in here too, a lot to counter the quibbles. If you have an interest in the time period and the subject matter, I strongly encourage you to take a look.