“The Hidden People” by Alison Littlewood

This is one of those books where I’ve seen it in a couple of bookshops since writing my review on Goodreads, and whenever that happens I always want to be like, “I read that one! Now it’s an actual book!” I don’t know, something about the novelty of readnig ARCs hasn’t worn off yet. I’m sure it will eventually.

the-hidden-people

Publication date: October 6th, 2016

The Hidden People is quite a strange book. I requested it because changelings and fairies and all that malarkey is totally my deal, but it took me quite a long time to get into — largely because it’s told in a very old-fashioned style that didn’t work for me. (I mean, there’s a reason I’m not a big fan of most ‘Classics’.) However, I stuck with it, and by halfway through I was invested enough to overlook the elements of the style that I wasn’t so sure about.

That’s one of those moments where I wonder whether reading for review actually changed my opinion — I’m not sure I would have stuck with it that long if I hadn’t been writing about it for my blog, although I’m not a big fan of giving up on books halfway anyway.

It reminded me a litle of what you might get if you crossed Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell with The Woman In Black. A Londoner, far too sensible and sophisticated to believe in the superstitions of country folk in the north, finds himself spending time in a house considered to be unlucky by locals while he deals with the aftermath of a death.

In this instance, it’s the death of his cousin, a woman he only met once — a fact that I kept returning to throughout the book, as he seems unreasonably obsessed with her fate, but he does acknowledge this towards the end of the book. And the comparison with JS&MN? Well, it’s full of fairies, and changelings, and stocks of wood left in the place of loved ones. It’s just that in this one, it’s very unclear how much of the magic is actually real, and how much is superstition covering for human ugliness.

In some ways, I’m a big fan of books like this that make you question what’s magic and what isn’t. Just when you’ve convinced yourself something really is supernatural, it turns out to be very human ugliness — like that Torchwood episode, ‘Countrycide’, except a bit less gross. In other ways, I prefer my fairies unambiguously magical, because I’m kind of obsessed with the Otherworld and that kind of thing. (This book had plenty of ‘my kind of thing’ — folk music as well as the fairy element, for a start.)

However, a few things put me off. The first was the style, which contributed to the sense that the book was very long. I’m not sure whether it was merely slow, or whether it genuinely had a high page count, but it seemed to take me a long time to get anywhere; bearing in mind I didn’t get invested until nearly halfway through, you can imagine that I was uncertain about it for quite a long time. It’s an aspect of the old-fashioned way of writing, and the circumspect nature of the narrator, who describes everything in a lot of detail — and for people who like Victorian literature, that kind of thing might be great. There’s certainly a lot of research behind this book, which shows. I just don’t have a great attention span, and I have to admit I prefer concise, fast-paced books these days. (A few years ago, I might have enjoyed this more.)

The second was the misogyny, which felt to a certain extent like a conscious choice, and one that the protagonist later realises and identifies. Of course, it’s in keeping with the Victorian setting, and with the plot — it’s much easier to believe that a woman is a changeling if you never really saw her as a person in the first place, and if you have major preconceived ideas about how she’s supposed to behave. Yet despite knowing that there was a reason for it, it made me uncomfortable to constantly read the narrator’s commentary on the women around him.

I suppose it’s just not something I have a high tolerance for, whether or not it’s an intentional narrative choice. But from the narrator’s point of view — and the narrative’s — every woman in this book is defined by her actions in relation to the men in her life, even those who seemed intriguingly independent upon first meeting them. Again: conscious, setting-appropriate choice, rather than laziness, and as the book’s by a female author I would think she was aware of it. But it didn’t quite work for me.

And one thing bothered me throughout. Even though he later acknowledges how crazy he’s been behaving, the protagonist is bizarrely fixated on his cousin throughout the book, which is never truly explained. He’s met her once, and yet he’s obsessed, in a manner that borders on creepy and/or incestuous. His wife’s the only one behaving sensibly, even if she comes across as a bit of a bitch here and there, due to his viewpoint. Since I couldn’t understand his motivations, that also made it hard for me to understand some of the (frankly misguided) choices he makes throughout the story.

On the whole, I’m not really sure how to respond to this book. I thoroughly enjoyed the ending (which makes it sound like I’m glad it was over; that’s not what I mean!) and felt the whole denoument was clever, and just ambiguous enough to leave a note of doubt in the reader’s mind. But it took an awfully long time to get there, and I didn’t find I was enjoying myself wildly for the majority of the book, largely due to my personal preferences about style and so on. So while there were some deliciously creepy elements, I’ve got to admit this wasn’t a hit for me.

It would probably be a 2.5* read if I did half stars, which I continue telling myself I don’t even though I end up in this position all the time. So I’m rounding it up to 3*s for the fairies, because, well, you know why.

Rating: ***
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