A forgotten history in my handbag

The Hidden Village

 

Imogen Matthews

 

 

 

 

This novel takes you back in time to World War Two, in Holland, and is based on fact.  You will find yourself in the village of Berkenhout, hidden deep inside the woods.  Reading this narrative, with the hindsight of a 21st century reader, you fear for the people throughout the book.  Turning each page with dread, you try to hope…

From the outset, Jewish people disappear in the Dutch village.  There is ‘A windowless van parked up ahead, its back doors open and the German soldiers were shouting at the elderly couple to get in.’  Such occurrences become part of everyday life for a community that decides to ‘stand up’ and support their Jewish neighbours.   It is an incredible story!

The community hide their Jewish neighbours in attics and summerhouses. Eventually, an entire village is constructed, in the woods, to protect these vulnerable people.  It is intriguing to observe how a community work together.  In turn, Matthews examines how the hidden villagers feel trapped.  It is sad that ‘freedom seemed an impossible dream’ yet we know it is better than the fate of their counterparts outside of the village.  How could they have realised the danger?  The German occupation is an ever-present menace that pursues the characters.  ‘All it took was a stray German to bump into’ one of children running through the woods with supplies.  Will they be caught?

The pathways, the darkness and the sounds of the forest help to personify the menace that is present throughout the novel. Sofie observes that:

‘for now, the sun was shining and it filled her with the warmth she’d forgotten existed’

The woods that symbolised freedom and adventure for children become an uncertain place.  As in a nightmare, the shadows of fear begin to dominate but will the monsters ever become real?

A society is developed with rules, regulations and leaders but there is tension.  Matthews explores the pressures of a community within a community.  She presents some very strong central characters who grow up in this unnatural world.  It is heart-breaking to observe how the children lose their innocence.  These children live with uncertainty and broken families – they have to find an inner strength.  The community spirit is heartening yet wanes under the burden of war.  Some of the younger characters rely on friendships to support them but they learn about cold, brutal betrayal.

This isn’t a fairy-tale in the woods and ‘you just have to keep hoping’.   You won’t go hurtling from one resolution to another.  You know that not all the characters will survive.  But you will take a look at how brave, unselfish people can work together in the face of injustice and discrimination.  Children will play a real game of cat and mouse, with the Germans, as they risk their lives to deliver food to hidden villagers.

The woods also conceal a village that provides sanctuary for lost souls. You will find Englishmen, Russians, a defective German, an American. World War Two was fought in villages by brave people. Sometimes these brave people feel the weight of responsibility; sometimes these people go missing and sometimes they return.  The narrative successfully captures the world of chaos.  There are raids by German soldiers and some news of the outside world but even this information is in the shadows.  The reader is distanced, with the villagers, from the outside world but niggled by their twenty first century knowledge.

Imogen Matthews

As more and more refugees arrive in the village to seek sanctuary, one cannot fail to see the parallel with the refugees in Europe.  Matthews gives an insight into how desperate people are driven into circumstances. The author guides you towards the uncertain ending.  Find out about Lisebeth, Sofie, Jan and Oscar as they ‘soundlessly’ creep through their adolescence, in a chaotic world.  Get inside of the hidden village and find out more about the impact of the exceptional circumstances on the very real characters and dilemmas.  The characters of this book will never leave your memory and it will make you reassess the terrors in our own world.

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Please see all my reviews at Books in Handbag and my blog at jessiecahalin.com.

Forgotten Dutch history concealed in my handbag

Imogen Matthews 

 

Imogen Matthews was born in Rijswijk, Holland, to a Dutch mother and English father, the family moved to England when Imogen was very young.

Imogen contacted me and asked me to review her novel.  She told me that The Hidden Village is an ‘intriguing historical fiction’ based on historical facts that have remained hidden in Holland.  My interest was piqued when she told me that she ‘needed to tell this WW2 story for the people of the hidden village.’  Obviously, the novel is on my Reading List but I wanted to find out more about the author and the book.

I was delighted to welcome Imogen Matthews to my Chat Room.  She is the first author to visit the completed room.  I was a little alarmed when she greeted me with, ‘Dag!’ but explained that it is Dutch for hello.

Imogen came into the Chat Room wearing a navy biker jacket over peach-coloured culottes and strappy navy sandals.  Of course, she had brought an enviable bag for the occasion and it was an elegant mushroom tote bag.

She requested a black Americano and brought some Dutch “koekjes” (biscuit) called “krakelingen” – lovely crisp flaky biscuits topped with sugar and cinnamon.

She said, ‘In Holland, you always get a “koekje” with your coffee and I miss that in England!’

How is Dutch culture different to British culture?

The Dutch have a word “gezellig” that is an emotion we don’t have a word for. So you can make your house “gezellig” by having lots of table lamps and tealights (strictly no overhead lights). A sociable meal with friends and family is also “gezellig”. My mother also used to say it was “gezellig” whenever I used to pop over for coffee. The Danes have stolen a march on this idea with “hygge”, but I can assure you that I’ve been using “gezellig” long before “hygge” became fashionable!

Imogen is an engaging, lively and positive personality and this reassured me that the narrative voice in her book would also be appealing.  It was obvious that her determination has served her well as a writer.  She cares passionately about the hidden Dutch history and this made me want to read on for the sake of the lost voices.

Tell me about The Hidden Village

Set in WW2 Holland, deep in the Veluwe woods, The Hidden Village is a story about survival, hope, despair, and ultimately, love, as a community pulls together to build a purpose-built village to shelter those persecuted by the Germans. The lives of young Sofie, Jan and Liesbeth become entwined with devastating consequences for their futures.

Tempt me with an extract from the novel

“It was the smell of a cigarette that stopped him in his tracks. A man wearing a grey belted coat stepped out from behind the tree. ‘So’, he said, grinding his cigarette with his boot.”

Why did you decide to digress from your usual genre of novel?

This was a story I felt I had to get down, so when I’d finished I felt pleased I’d told a story that so many people won’t have known anything about.

Imogen Matthews

What do the reviewers say about your novel?

Sensitively written. “From the first chapter you are engaged with the characters and I even found myself warning them when they were due to be raided – OUT LOUD! Sensitively written, with a page-turning plot, this is a wonderful new book from Imogen.” Ms E. Holmes-ievers

I couldn’t put it down. “This skillful blend of fiction within the factual events happening to many at those times, holds you till the end. I couldn’t put it down, nor did I want to until the final page.”  Gilly Cox

Highly recommended. “Though the subject matter is tough, there are lighter moments and the book rattles along at a good pace. The varied cast of characters, especially the younger ones, keeps your interest. Highly recommended.”  Clarky

How did you feel when you had finished writing your book, and did you miss any of the characters?

It left a big hole as I’d spent so long on the book and I realised just how attached I’d become to my characters.

So yes, I miss my characters lots! I miss Sofie’s feistiness and determination not to let her life change by hiding away from the Germans. And I miss her best friend Liesbeth, who sticks by Sofie through thick and thin, even though she also has to make her own big sacrifices. I even miss the enigmatic Henk, the head woodman, who’s instrumental in getting the hidden village built, but struggles with his loyalties. I particularly miss Jan, who’s always getting into scrapes but is only trying to help others and do good. He goes through so much that I just want to give him a big hug and tell him that everything will turn out alright.

It is obvious that you are genuinely attached to your characters and care about them – this always bodes well for the reader.

Who would you like to read your book and why?  This could be another author, someone famous, a friend or a member of your family.  

I’d love Anita Shreve to read my book as I’m a great fan of her writing. She has a great ability to say so much in so few words. Her book Resistance, set in German-occupied Belgium, is brilliant and inspired me when I started working out the plot for my book.

Why should I keep your book in my handbag?

Because it’s so gripping that you won’t want to leave it out of your sight!

What is the last sentence written in your writer’s notebook?

I’ve been writing for years and have notebooks all over the place, so that’s a hard one. I guess it’ll be something along the lines of “to be continued.” That sums up how I feel about writing -I’ve always got something more to say.

What is the biggest challenge for an independent author?

Getting noticed. You have to work really hard to get people to find your book as the competition is increasing all the time. I self-published my first book Run Away by Alex Johnson (my pen name) in 2012 and got a great response quite quickly and lots of reviews. Then in 2014 I published the sequel The Perfume Muse and it was already much harder. For The Hidden Village I was fortunate to find Amsterdam Publishers, who have been enormously helpful in helping to navigate the many pitfalls when launching a book.

What is the best advice that you have received as a writer?

A writing tutor once said that you should write every day, however little and however bad you might think your writing is. She also recommended writing before doing anything else first thing in the morning as it’s so easy to get distracted by other things and then never get down to it. I took her advice to heart and sometimes I only write 100 words a day, but these words do add up and eventually you can see you have written a book. Of course, that’s when the hard work starts, but you’ve built the framework which gives you the confidence to keep going.

Tell me a little more about yourself.

I live with my husband in Oxford and love to go on runs, walks and cycle rides in the beautiful surrounding countryside. I love cooking Moroccan and Middle Eastern inspired food, particularly Ottolenghi and Persiana recipes. A favourite is lovely crumbly tahini cookies.

Tahini Cookies (from Jerusalem) by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamiimi

130g caster sugar

150 unsalted butter, at room temperature

110g light tahini paste

1/2 tsp vanilla essence

25ml double cream (you can sub this with milk)

270g plain flour

1tsp cinnamon

200 degree C/180 degree C Fan/Gas Mark 6

Put sugar and butter in mixer bowl and with a beater attachment work for 1 minute at medium speed. Add tahini, vanilla and cream, then the flour and work for a minute till a dough comes together. Transfer to a work surface and knead till smooth.

Pinch off 20g of dough and roll between your palms into a ball. Squash down onto a baking sheet (no oil necessary) and use the back of a fork to flatten and make a prong pattern. Sprinkle each cookie with cinnamon. Make sure the cookies aren’t too close together as they do spread a bit.

Into the oven for 15-17 minutes till golden brown.

Turn onto a wire rack to cool and try and resist eating them when hot! Yum!

I pressed Imogen to let me have the recipe!

 

Please see all my interviews on My Guests and see my blog at jessiecahalin.com

Originally posted 2017-06-24 07:00:09.