In The Heart Of Hidden Things by Kit Whitfield (Quercus Publishing) is a novel steeped in fairy lore. It centres around a family of fairy smiths, whose job it is to protect the humans from the fairy folk with advice and iron. In this novel, the humans are weak and the fairies are strong. But among the humans, there are hierarchies, too. The cruel and bitter landlord, Ephraim Brady, has it in for Tobias Ware, a boy who does not understand the laws and language of men. Together, John and his fairy-smith father, Mathew, must try to calm the wroth of the fairy folk to keep Tobias safe.
I read and am reviewing this book for its representation of neurodiversity. The story draws heavily on Kit Whitfield’s own experiences of being part of a neurodiverse family. Although within the novel itself, there is no explicit mention of neurodiversity in these exact terms, Whitfield’s intentions are made clear in an appendix that lists resources about neurodiversity in order to point readers in the direction of support should they need it.
In In The Heart Of Hidden Things, both John and Tobias’ neurodivergence is thought to have magical origins. John is thought to have been ‘touched’ by the fairy folk and Tobias’ behaviours are put down to the ‘bad luck that he’d been born one dark autumn night after his mother took fright at the sight of Black Hal [a spectral dog] running past their gate’.
Fairy superstition has historically been used to explain physical disabilities in newborn babies, and also disabilities that became apparent in individuals later in life. Often, it was thought a child may either have been demonically or divinely ‘touched’. Sometimes, such infants were thought to be changelings, and in other instances they were believed to be lucky in that they supposedly brought all of God’s wrath upon themselves, thus sparing the rest of the village. Today, the phrase ‘touched in the head’ is still used in a derogatory way to imply foolishness or insanity.
In In The Heart Of Hidden Things, to be ‘touched’ comes with some social stigma, in that it is something most people are trying to avoid. However, Whitfield’s use of the term ‘touched’ perhaps goes partway to reclaiming it. For one thing, those ‘touched’ are not idealised or demonised. Moreover, to be ‘touched’ holds a wide range of meanings beyond making one physically or intellectually disabled. For example, aside from John and Tobias, John’s mother is also ‘touched’, but for her this means that any needle work she does turns into forest foliage!
Although the novel features numerous central characters, for a lot of the narrative we follow John, a boy who according to the blurb, ‘turned out a little uncommon… but he means well.’ Despite this initial introduction to John feeling a little patronising, and perhaps more in-keeping with the modern understanding of ‘touched’ than I’d have liked, John is immediately a likeable and engaging character. He clearly means well, even when his difficulty grasping the implied meanings of vague, or idiomatic, language gets him into trouble with his grandfather in the first chapter of the book. These moments are generally handled extremely well, as we are led to easily identify with the logic of John’s interpretation of the words, rather than encouraged to find his misunderstanding funny.
For the most part, the villagers adapt themselves to John and Tobias, rather than wanting them to change. Those around Tobias understand that his perception of the law is not the same as their own, and they make accommodations for this. It is clear that his family love him and care for him, saying, ‘We all have our ways and Toby has his’. Meanwhile, John’s father, Mathew, is methodical and clear in his communication with his son as he continues to train John to be a fairy-smith and entrusts him with more and more responsibility. This is something John takes very seriously.
While on a grassroots level, the villagers are accepting and accommodating, the laws themselves do not account for any difference of perception, so Tobias’ safety from the fairy folk and from Ephraim Brady is an immediate concern for numerous characters. Yet, some of the animalistic traits Tobias demonstrates are problematic. For example, he eats raw meat, enjoys being petted, and is at times kept penned in or caged. Reading this with the knowledge that this book was depicting neurodiversity meant I found these descriptions uncomfortable, particularly when objects of Tobias’ fear were used as a tool to keep him fenced in.
In terms of disability representation, the fact that the curing or eradication of any disability is not the focus of this book is always positive (and a relief!) to read. John is a nuanced character who makes and rights his mistakes, Tobias, though with problematic elements I have already discussed, is a non-speaking boy who is allowed to be himself, and this is complicated and limited only when those around him are trying to keep him safe from danger and harm – and harm that is socially inflicted by a law that doesn’t account for Tobias’ way of living.
Overall, the novel has a collection of central characters at its heart, which in itself speaks to the community fostered in the pages of this book. Power struggles, violence, mistakes and responsibility are threaded throughout the story. John is a strong, nuanced protagonist whose sound heart gives this book its warmth, even when things start to go wrong. Whitfield’s world building is detailed, the magic of this story is enticing and I found plenty to enjoy in this book.
Reviewed by Beth O'Brien.
Thank you to Quercus Books for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
About the author:
Beth O’Brien is a writer, editor and reviewer. She is the author of Light Perception (Wild Pressed Books, 2019), I Left the Room Burning (Wild Pressed Books, 2021), The Earth is a Bookcase (Black Pear Press, 2021), Catching Sight (Blanket Sea Press, 2021) and I Chase Lightning (Black Pear Press, 2022). She is a children’s fiction ghost-writer, and also writes graded reader books for children learning English as a foreign or additional language. Having been born visually impaired and with an upper limb difference, Beth has a long-standing interest in the representation of disability in literature. She is currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing funded by Midlands4Cities, researching the (mis)representation of disability in contemporary fairy tale retellings.
Discussing disabled characters in fairy tales and folklore!