I’m really delighted today to be joining the blog tour for The Hidden Child by Louise Fein, and sharing my review: published by Head of Zeus on 2nd September, it’s now available as an ebook, in hardcover (also available via bookshop.org and Waterstones, or through your favourite high street book shop), and as an audiobook. The paperback will follow on 12th May 2022, and is available for preorder. My thanks to Vicky and Jade at Head of Zeus for the invitation and support, and for my advance reading copy (provided via netgalley).
Louise Fein’s People Like Us (published in the US as Daughter of the Reich) was one of the best books I read last year. You’ll find my review here, and I can still remember sobbing uncontrollably in the garden on a sunny afternoon – a totally heartbreaking love story set against an exceptionally drawn period of history. A testament to the power of love, the horrifying WW2 backdrop is something I’ll never forget – the way an ideology took over a people, that blind belief, the ease with which hatred and brutality became the norm. It was so good to see that others loved it too, with a well-deserved shortlisting for the 2021 RNA’s Historical Novel of the Year Award. Not the easiest novel to follow up, I’m sure – but I was very much looking forward to seeing what this exceptionally talented author did next…
From the outside, Eleanor and Edward Hamilton are the epitome of a perfect marriage but they’re harbouring a shameful secret that threatens to fracture their entire world.
London, 1929. Eleanor Hamilton is a dutiful mother, a caring sister and adoring wife to a celebrated war hero. Her husband, Edward, is a leading light in the Eugenics movement. The Hamiltons are on the social rise, and it looks as though their future is bright.
When Mabel, their young daughter, begins to develop debilitating seizures, their world fractures as they have to face the uncomfortable truth – Mabel is an epileptic: one of the undesirables Edward campaigns against.
Forced to hide the truth so as not to jeopardise Edward’s life work, the couple must confront the truth of their past – and the secrets that have been buried.
Will Eleanor and Edward be able to fight for their family? Or will the truth destroy them?
Before I picked up this book, I knew lamentably little about the eugenics movement – other than having an obvious awareness of the part it played in Nazi ideology and the extremes of its application in an attempt to secure the purity of the Aryan race. I had no idea that it had gained such traction in the UK in the period following the First World War, driven by the notion of “greater good”, the desire to prevent over-breeding by those perceived to be the lower levels of the population: and I certainly had no idea that its principles had their foundation in America, its popularity driven by racial motivations as well as the suppressing of the unfit and the criminal classes. Firstly the notion of selective breeding – with a programme of compulsory sterilisation for the “undesirables” – then the proposal of euthanasia. It’s a frightening subject, and a particularly brave one to tackle in a work of fiction – but the depth of the author’s research is particularly impressive, making it a convincing and fascinating backdrop for the more personal fictional story at the book’s heart.
Edward is a leading light in the eugenics movement – a war hero, his interest driven by the psychological and education perspective, but also by the new-found respect he has in the community. His wife Eleanor also has her reasons to be sympathetic to the cause – her mother was murdered by a man with mental health issues, forcing her to work to support herself and her young sister, but marriage to Edward has given her a life of comfort and affluence. Her young daughter Mabel is the centre of her life, four years old, lively and vibrant – until she develops frequent seizures, and is diagnosed with epilepsy. Eleanor is horrified by the brutal effects of her medication – Edward is perhaps more concerned about the impact on his personal standing when the news gets out that his daughter is suffering from one of the conditions the eugenics movement are endeavouring to suppress. As Mabel’s health deteriorates, and the bromide treatment fails to stop her mental deterioration, she is sent away to an epilepsy colony – Eleanor is convinced it’s a facility where she will be treated and cared for but the reality is something very different, while Edward is relieved that it’ll lessen the possibility of Mabel’s condition and its implications being discovered.
The story is told from the viewpoints of both Edward and Eleanor. Hers is filled with domestic detail, her relationship with her rather more unconventional sister, the emotional impact of her daughter’s illness and all that follows, her feelings for her husband and her doubts about the foundations of her marriage. Edward’s track his dealings with the eugenics movement, his meetings and conferences, his conversations exploring the theory, the putting together of his research papers, all underpinned by his unshakeable belief that the ideology is the only possible solution – but also dip into his personal history and upbringing and the deep secrets of his past that disturb his nights. There’s a third voice too – the voice of Epilepsy, for occasional chapters, and it’s a device that’s exceptionally effective and well-handled. Despite their ideology, the author manages to make both Edward and Eleanor sympathetic characters, shaped by their time and their experiences – and the wider cast of characters is equally strongly drawn.
Their story, of course, is a work of fiction – and it’s a strong and well-told story, one that draws you in and consumes you, with immense emotional impact. The way the author weaves in the factual detail is really exceptional – both the progress of the eugenics movement and the realities of epilepsy and its treatment at the time – and she creates a world and a time you entirely inhabit and believe in for as long as you read. I always enjoy a book when I learn a little – and this book also makes you question your own attitudes and preconceptions, pulling you into their dilemma, making you ask yourself what you would do in a similar situation. The writing is quite wonderful – emotionally astute, intellectually convincing, and all done with perfect pace and more than enough twists and turns to keep the pages turning. And do read the author’s afterword – it has fascinating detail about the historical context, and also explains how she was able to write so convincingly about epilepsy and its treatment.
It’s fair, I think, to say that this wasn’t an easy read – but that’s only because of its subject matter, and although it’s a fairly weighty book it’s an entirely compulsive read with stunning emotional and historical depth. Without question, this is one of my books of the year – I’ll be thinking about it for some time to come, and recommend it most highly.
About the author
Louise Fein was born and brought up in London. She harboured a secret love of writing from a young age, preferring to live in her imagination than the real world. After a law degree, Louise worked in Hong Kong and Australia, travelling for a while through Asia and North America before settling back to a working life in London. She finally gave in to the urge to write, taking an MA in creative writing, and embarking on her first novel, Daughter of the Reich (named People Like Us in the UK and Commonwealth edition). The novel was inspired by the experience of her father’s family, who escaped from the Nazis and arrived in England as refugees in the 1930’s. Daughter of the Reich/People Like Us is being translated into 11 foreign languages, has been shortlisted for the 2021 RNA Historical Novel of the year Award, and has been long listed for the Not The Booker Prize.
Louise’s second novel, The Hidden Child, will be published in the Autumn of 2021. Louise lives in the beautiful English countryside with her husband, three children, two cats, small dog and the local wildlife who like to make an occasional appearance in the house. Louise is currently working on her third novel.
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