The Hidden People

Written by Alison Littlewood
Review by Douglas Kemp

England in the 1860s. Albie Millards, a rather pompous and earnest clerk in his father’s London business, travels to a small village, Halfoak, in Yorkshire to investigate the macabre death of his cousin Elizabeth Higgs. She was killed by her husband, who had reportedly suspected that she had been turned into a changeling by the faeries, and was severely burned to recover her soul, resulting in her untimely death. In Halfoak, Albie is shocked to find that no one wants to take responsibility for the body of the unfortunate Elizabeth, and thus he arranges her funeral, which is also ignored by the locals. Helena, Albie’s wife, unexpectedly arrives and announces that she is pregnant with their first child. Albie decides that he has to stay on to look further into his cousin’s death, and to discover who else in the village might be to blame. They stay in Elizabeth Higgs’ vacant cottage (her husband is in prison awaiting trial), and some very strange things start to happen. Helena’s character changes, and she becomes hostile and distant towards her husband. Halfoak is immersed in an unrelentingly hot summer, and our seemingly rational narrator, and the reader, begins to wonder just where the truth lies: how much is caused by supernatural belief, and how much just by the mendacity of human behaviour.

The story is narrated in an excellent Victorian voice; Albie’s determination to maintain standards of propriety and rationality in the face of the weird events are admirably described in the first person. About two-thirds of the way through the novel, the story seems to become a little stuck, with the characters repeating their actions without a sense of forward movement. Nevertheless, it is an excellent and engaging read, moving to an absorbing conclusion.