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Monday, August 29, 2016

The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood -- a review

The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood
Review by Gary Fry
There seems to have been a small revival of fictions dealing with “hidden people” lately. I’m thinking of Ramsey Campbell’s exquisitely weird novel The Kind Folk and the recent (modestly effective) film The Hallows. Perhaps there’s something about the true nature of fairies which appeals to us all during these dark days of global strife overlaid by media-enforced bogusly sentimental discourse.
Anyway, here is Alison Littlewood’s latest novel, also focusing on the hidden people of yore. It’s narrated by a young Victorian rationalist (Albie), in the thrall of social and industrial revolution in 19th Century Britain. He’s committed to scientific enlightenment, and yet when he meets his young cousin, the pure Lizzie, he experiences some ineffably magical connection with her which haunts him for years to come.
Then, some time later, she dies. Having gone their separate ways, Albie to the city, Lizzie to the wilds of Yorkshire, our narrator must now venture to the countryside, with all its backward-thinking residents and strangely ancient lore. Here he will investigate just what led to his fair cousin’s premature death.
The early sections of this book will feel very familiar to wide readers, and that’s no bad thing. There’s almost a cosy, Victorian-novel feel to the opening events, each scene delineated by Littlewood in a highly convincing pastiche of the great storytelling masters’ prose (Eliot, et al). Indeed, it’s the quality of the writing which makes these introductory passages soar, with landscapes populated by flora and the villagers’ closed community depicted with all its questionable traditions.
The plot when it gets going takes the form of an investigative mystery, with many a sinister set-piece – visits to mystical seers, troubling dreams, and grave-digging – and off-the-page spookiness. Littlewood is adroit at relating her story without ever giving away to the reader just what kind of book this is: straight horror story, historical drama, dark crime?
This clever evasion of categorisation keeps us guessing right to the end, and the conclusion, once it comes, is highly satisfying. It’s hard for me to discuss this part of the book without giving away key moments, though I will say that its borderline ghostly nature and focus on familial events in the near-past put me most closely in mind of Barbara Vine’s macabre mystery novels.
In short, this is a compelling book, but not one which readers of hardcore dark fiction are necessarily going to relish. Its references to the titular hidden people remain allusive throughout, and if such quiet, suggestive horror is your preference, you’re in for a good time here.
The characterisation is solid throughout, and although even I, a dyed-in-the-wool Yorkshire-man, struggled a bit with the vernacular dialogue at times, I found the book a particular joy to read. Littlewood is excellent at capturing locations, while her understanding of human psychology is – essential here – never less than convincing.
Did I have any issues with the novel? Well, I did think Littlewood used the “it was only a dream” motif once too often to start a chapter, but that’s a minor issue and, in fairness, these passages did crank up the accumulating tension. The plot, as I’ve suggested, is, in the early stages, rather traditional, but whether you consider that a fault or a pleasure is your business. For me, the latter held sway; I’ve always been a big fan of the 19th Century melodramatic novel.
I particularly relished the final chapter, which, following a sequence of events that assert the narrator’s hardnosed rationalism, challenge this simplistic assumption with some mystical reflections and transformative perceptions. Just as Albie appeared to fall in love quickly at the book’s beginning, he’s learnt, by its end, that not everything in life, especially us “wild” people, work as mechanically as all the clocks and devices he’s observed at the Great Exhibition in the opening chapter.
This is a compelling, weird and knowing conclusion to a deeply satisfying book. I have no hesitation in recommending it to both genre and non-genre readers.

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