Summary: In 1851, within the grand glass arches of London’s Crystal Palace, Albie Mirralls meets his cousin Lizzie for the first–and, as it turns out, last–time. His cousin is from a backward rural village, and Albie expects she will be a simple country girl, but instead he is struck by her inner beauty and by her lovely singing voice, which is beautiful beyond all reckoning. When next he hears of her, many years later, it is to hear news of her death at the hands of her husband, the village shoemaker.
Unable to countenance the rumors that surround his younger cousin’s murder–apparently, her husband thought she had been replaced by one of the “fair folk” and so burned her alive–Albie becomes obsessed with bringing his young cousin’s murderer to justice. With his father’s blessing, as well as that of his young wife, Albie heads to the village of Halfoak to investigate his cousin’s murder. When he arrives, he finds a community in the grip of superstition, nearly every member of which believes Lizzie’s husband acted with the best of intentions and in the service of the village.
There, Albie begins to look into Lizzie’s death and to search for her murderous husband, who has disappeared. But in a village where the rationalism and rule of science of the Industrial Revolution seem to have found little purchase, the answers to the question of what happened to Lizzie and why prove elusive. And the more he learns, the less sure he is that there aren’t mysterious powers at work.
Review: A murder mystery set in mid-1800s England where signs point to faerie involvement? Sign me right up! The premise behind Alison Littlewood’s The Hidden People caught my attention and played to multiple pet interests of mine, and so I was very eager to sit down and read my way through what I felt certain would be a fascinating trip into the past where the lines between the mundane and the supernatural were blurred.
Albie is a man who, upon learning of his cousin’s death at the hands of her husband, takes it upon himself to see justice done. He goes to Lizzie’s home of Halfoak to attend the funeral, only to find increasingly strange talk from the locals about how the Lizzie that was killed was not the real Lizzie at all, but was in fact a changeling. After the sudden and unexpected arrival of Albie’s own wife, who does not seem herself at all, Albie’s life turns on its head as he searches for the truth of what happened to his cousin, and what may well have happened to his wife.
The Hidden People is a “did it or did it not happen” kind of mystery, one that might frustrate readers who expect a clear progression of the story in which pieces of slowly revealed and the puzzle becomes more clear. The protagonist flips his opinion back and forth a dozen times through the narrative, first being sure that Lizzie was fully human, then doubting it, then doubting his doubt, then wondering if faeries may be involved after all, and so on. If you expect a story in which the pieces fit neatly together as Albie slowly figures out that mystical forces are present, then you’ll be disappointed. What this book offers is a look into a man who cannot fathom certain things happening for certain reasons, who doubts constantly and is unsure of anything, and who is dealing with an increasingly stressful situation in his life. In short, it’s magnificently realistic, for it’s a rare person who can find evidence of the supernatural and not at least consider that it may be a factor in things. Albie reacts as most people would to events and information, as sometimes it looks as though something supernatural may be at work, and at other times it looks as though everything can be traced back to superstition and willful ignorance. Until the end, it’s very hard to tell just what happened to Lizzie, and what is happening to Albie and Helena.
Though in mentioning it, even at the end of the book, some things are still ambiguous. Albie certain thinks he’s gotten to the bottom of things, and for the most part the mystery surrounding Lizzie’s murder has been solved, but some events could be interpreted either way. Was Albie’s behaviour rational given that he suffered a loss, or was it wild and irrational and influenced by powers beyond the mundane? Was Helena influenced by changeling motivations of by her husband’s inexplicable attachment to a cousin he only met once? If there were no faeries, what caused some of the more bizarre things that Albie experienced? It’s easy to interpret the ending one way, to say, “Oh yes, it was this all along,” but there are so many coincidences that matched local superstition that you’re left wondering how much was truly mundane and how much was supernatural.
Littlewood weaves a great story here, with plenty of questions and atmosphere to keep readers turning the pages, hungry to see what happens next. There’s so much wonderful local flavour, too, with people in Halfoak speaking in that particular Yorkshire dialect (which I myself only heard for the first time about a month ago, so it thrilled me to see it in text and to know, “I know exactly what that sounds like!”) and bringing in colloquialisms and the clash of cultures that inevitably exists between big city folk and those from further into the countryside. Seeing the story from Albie’s viewpoint, which ranged from calm and rational to frantic and chaotic depending on what he had just discovered, was wonderful, since many of the dual-nature aspects of the story take place within Albie himself, an inner reflection of the outer world. The tone of the narrative was such that you can fall into it easily, reading it not as yet another first-person viewpoint with dozens of observations that people don’t actually tend to make for themselves, but as the memoirs of a troubled man, something that truly feels as though it could have been written by him years after the fact. It’s hard to say specifically what separates the two; something in the tone of the writing or the way Albie speaks or the way it all sounds very much like diary entries from the time period. But this is a problem I’ve pointed out in the past with first-person narratives, how it’s meant to draw the reader further into the story by placing them immediately within the head of the protagonist, but for me it often fails because said protagonist always thinks in ways that people just don’t on a day-to-day basis. Littlewood’s presentation of Albie was such that it felt like I was reading his confessions, something he deliberately endeavoured to tell, rather than that I was just along for the ride.
My only regret with this book is that the ending did turn out to be so mundane. Yes, I did mention previously that it was somewhat ambiguous and not all questions really were answered, and I felt like it was left that way deliberately rather than as some authorial oversight, but it’s so easy to look only at the surface of the story and conclude that there was nothing supernatural going on whatsoever. And I was hoping, from the back-of-the-book premise, that it was going to be more of a supernatural murder mystery than just a murder mystery that probably only has the supernatural connected to it because of local superstition. You can blame that disappointment on me as a reader, since the book offered me no promises of anything, but the presentation leads you to think that way, and then it doesn’t happen.
On the flip side, though, I think that gives The Hidden People a wider appeal, since those who enjoy historical fiction and mysteries but who don’t read much SFF can appreciate this book with or without its ambiguities. It’s not just SFF fans that this book will appeal to, and really, I like encountering novels that transcend genre.
But regardless of that one piece of criticism, overall, I really enjoyed the journey into the past that came with The Hidden People. The story was compelling, the characters interesting and complex, and it was an evocative novel that’s going to have a solid place of my bookshelves from now on. Definitely recommended for those who are looking for something beyond typical urban fantasy fare, for those who enjoy historical fiction, and also, for those like me who have a soft spot for genre-breaking fiction that leaves you hungry for more.
(Received for review from the publisher.)