New Release Book Review: The Hidden by Mary Chamberlain

The Hidden…

About the Book:

Dora Simon is comfortable in her retirement, indulging her interests in gardening and music. Joe O’Cleary is content on the Jersey farm he helped rebuild with its owner, Geoffrey Laurent, with time to pursue his life-long hobby of birdwatching. But their worlds are shattered by the arrival of Barbara Hummel, a young German anxious to track down the identity of a mysterious woman whose photograph she found among her mother’s possessions.

Forced to resurrect long-buried secrets, and confront a past they never thought they would revisit, Dora and Joe’s lives unravel – and entwine – in shocking and surprising ways. Trapped in the Channel Islands under the German occupation in the Second World War, Dora, a Jewish refugee, conceals her identity; Joe, a Catholic priest, conceals a secret. The consequences of the lies both are forced to live are as unexpected as they are devastating.

This is a heart rending and provocative story of love and betrayal, shame and survival, casting light into the forgotten or unknown shadows of war.

My Thoughts:

Until I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, my knowledge of the German occupation of the English Channel Islands was quite slim. The Hidden takes the reader back to that time, but on the island of Jersey, the other occupied island. The occupation of Guernsey and Jersey was a long one, five years – most of the second world war, and they were completely cut off from Britain for the duration. The Channel Islands were the only part of the British Isles to be occupied by German Armed Forces during the war. The effects of this have been lasting, for all those who were trapped on either island, and this novel takes an empathic approach to exploring this.

‘His war was not the war the British fought and won. His war was one of cruelty and loss. Guilt and betrayal. Savage as wolves that return to their prey, that it was.’

The two main characters, Joe and Dora, are connected by a mutual friend, but the depth of this connection becomes more apparent as the novel progresses. Both Joe and Dora were imprisoned during the war, forced into places and situations they never would have found themselves in during times of peace. The beauty in this novel is in its honesty, the brutality exposed, the deprivation, the debasement; at times it’s not an easy novel to read but it’s a profoundly moving one.

‘Would she have told a sister, if she’d had one, about the war? Sworn her to secrecy? She used to think so, but not now. She was used to her burden, carried it around wherever she went . Her memories were all she had in the world. Sometimes she thought of them crammed into a Gladstone, or a carpet bag, something soft and shapeless that expanded, with secret pockets and compartments.’

The instinct for human survival never ceases to amaze me, just as the evil that rests within humans no longer surprises me. This novel is very much a study within both of these spaces: survival and evil. The Hidden portrays its history well, and while this is a fictional story, it’s tethered by historical events and the author notes detailing the sources accessed demonstrates the novel’s validity. The dual timeline worked particularly well moving between 1985 and the occupied years. In 1985, the Berlin Wall was still standing, the Iron Curtain still closed; WWII was still a present history for all. This is well demonstrated through the character of Barbara Hummell, who is shaking up the lives of Joe and Dora with her persistence in seeking information from them about their experiences in Jersey during the war. Barbara carries her own burden as a child of Germany, born during the war years, uncertain of her parentage and seeking to find her place in a world still bearing deep scars from Nazism.

‘It’s been difficult for my generation of Germans,’ she said. ‘To live in the shadow of the war, with parents refusing to admit what happened. We took on their guilt.’ ‘You can’t be blamed for the past.’ ‘No, but we are responsible for the future. We need to account for what went on, before we can forge ahead. That doesn’t start in the archive. It starts at home.’

The Hidden is beautifully written, the prose almost poetic at times. Even when describing boxing the author gave it a certain grace that elevated it into a form of art. The story was so powerful that there was no need for dramatic overplay. It is a very well written novel by an author who knows just how much to give and just how much to hold back; perfectly balanced. I highly recommend The Hidden to those who like their historical fiction unapologetically honest.

‘Joe stared through the open window at the darkening sky. This time of a June evening, it folded around them like an indigo scarf. The silence was broken by the chirring of a nightjar, his soft hum rising and falling. It was a difficult bird to spot. Bad enough by day, impossible by night unless you caught it flying. But you could hear it. Listen and look.’


Thanks is extended to Oneworld via NetGalley for providing me with a copy of The Hidden for review.

About the Author:

Mary Chamberlain is a novelist and Emeritus Professor of Caribbean History at Oxford Brookes University. Her book Fenwomen was the first book to be published by Virago Press in 1975. Since then, she has published six other works of history, and edited a further five. Her first novel, The Dressmaker of Dachau was published by HarperCollins in the UK and, under the title The Dressmaker’s War, by Random House in the USA. In all, it sold to 18 countries and was an international best-seller. Her second novel, The Hidden, is to be published by OneWorld Publications in February 2019.

Author Website
Twitter: marychamberla12

The Hidden
Published by Oneworld
Released on 7th February 2019 (UK) 1st April 2019 (Australia)

8 thoughts on “New Release Book Review: The Hidden by Mary Chamberlain

  1. It’s interesting to note that looking just now on Goodreads shows me that I really disliked this author’s previous novel. Just goes to show that sometimes it’s the book, not always the author! I’m glad I read this without knowing this first, it would have been a shame if I’d passed on this novel because of not liking the previous!


  2. If you liked this book, you might like the film Another Mother’s Son, about a woman on Guernsey who hides a Russian prisoner from the Germans. I bought it recently when it was advertised cheaply at Fishpond, but if you can’t get hold of it, let me know and I’ll happily lend you my copy.
    One thing bothers me about the novels and films that revisit the Occupation of the Channel Islands. They tend to describe Britain’s inability to protect them as ‘betrayal’. Britain was barely to protect itself in 1940, and would have had to divert massive naval resources to two islands for the duration where they would have been sitting ducks for German submarines and the Occupation would then have taken place anyway. Britain was underprepared for war and had no capacity to keep Germany out of the islands and prosecute the war as well. (As it was, in 1941 they had to go into massive debt to America for second-hand warships and planes). Saving Jersey and Guernsey couldn’t have been done, and while I understand that there is residual bitterness about it, it’s misleading history IMO for novelists to peddle this blame without acknowledging the parlous state of Britain’s defences.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for that recommendation, I just searched and I can get it on Google Play. I’ll watch it there and let you know what I think.
      What you’ve said here was churning through my mind while reading this novel. I can understand the despair and lasting bitterness, but you’re so right, Britain was not in any position to hold back the Germans or take back the islands, which Germany no doubt knew. This novel didn’t hammer that blame too much though. On an individual level, both Joe and Dora felt their war was a different war to the one in Britain, which of course it was, but they seemed harrowed by shame from their war experiences, as though there was no honour in their suffering or sacrifice. I find that sad, so very sad. In that, this novel excels, examining the way in which people are forced to become people they never imagined they would be. Perhaps we all like to envisage ourselves as people who would resist, but the reality doesn’t always translate to this happening. I meant to elaborate on this a bit in the review but I was sidetracked by assisting my husband with washing machine repairs!


  3. Pingback: Six Degrees of Separation: From Murmur to Heresy… | Theresa Smith Writes

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