BY CHARLOTTE BOND
The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood is a remarklably well written book, but it needs to find the right audience or else it risks being underappreciated.
Littlewood’s debut novel, “A Cold Season” was a bestseller and featured on the Richard and Judy book club. It was modern, well-paced and full of conflict and threat. Its sequel, “A Cold Season” was along the same lines. The Hidden People is a very different affair, and those picking it up expecting it to be along the same lines, might be surprised at how different it is.
The best way I can summarise it is: Do you like the works of Thomas Hardy? If you do, then this book will blow you away. It’s set in the 19th century with engaging, believable characters. The style of writing is as elegant and fulsome as Hardy’s was. I would describe it as a modern day classical book.
But therein lies the problem: Hardy is a difficult read for many people. There’s less focus on characters and more on the plot and describing the beautiful countryside. Littlewood’s book is prose-heavy. It definitely demands the reader sits down and pays attention, and probably isn’t suitable for those wanting something to dip in and out of because of the level of detail in it. For the most part, it is well-written prose, but there were times when I felt it was too overdone. For example, page 34 has the following line: “After all, of warning of what I should find in their outhouse they had given me none.” After reading this, I couldn’t help thinking: Wouldn’t “After all, they had given me no warning whatsoever about what I should find in their outhouse” have done just as well and been much clearer?
Luckily, there were few passages where this mistake was repeated, and there were several passages that were so vivid they stuck in my mind, such as when Albert enters the cottage garden for the first time, and when he is walking up the hill to explore further:
“I opened the gate, glancing at the garden to see a profusion of colours just inside the wall... and peas in want of picking, their weight pulling at their stakes”
“More of those bright-eyed daises peeped from the verdure, and all about me where dandelion clocks, nature’s own timepieces, their heads so laden and gauzy that as I went higher they began to take to the air, floating past me and hurrying onwards, as if carried on a matter of some urgency.”
These are brilliant images that conjure up the vitality and colour of a countryside now long gone, covered up by tarmac roads and tourist traps. And by writing this in a style reminiscent of Hardy and other classic writers, Littlewood adds an extra verisimilitude that would have been lacking if she’d merely set it in the 19th century and written it in a modern style.
Overall, I found the novel well-paced and interesting. Peculiarly, I found Albert and Helena to be the least interesting of the characters; for me, the novel really came alive and grabbed my attention when Littlewood wrote about the minor characters, such as Jem, or Mrs Gomersal, or the constable. I also found Albert’s fascination with Lizzie based on so little contact stretching believability a bit, but it can be attributed to the air of enchantment that pervades the novel.
The actual ending itself (no spoilers!) was a little too vague for my tastes, but I have to admit that the denouement, in relation to Helena in particular, startled and horrified me. Littlewood keeps you guessing all the way through as to whether the incidents in Halfoak are down to the actual people or the hidden people.
So, if you are a fan of the classics and the extracts given above have whetted your appetite for more, then you should check out this book; if you frowned whilst reading them, then you might be better of checking out some of Littlewood’s other work. A lot of love went into this book, and in its own way it is brilliant, but only if you’re in the right frame of mind to read it. With its remarkable summer imagery and the need to focus on it, this book would make the perfect holiday read.