The Book of Hidden Things: Well, that was interesting

The Book of Hidden Things by Francesco DimitriThe Book of Hidden Things by Francesco DimitriThe Book of Hidden Things by Francesco Dimitri

Francesco Dimitri’s 2018 novel The Book of Hidden Things is one that I appreciated more than I liked. In fact, I had to think about it for a few days before I wrote this review, because I started seeing more positives in it upon reflection. This is because, despite the title and the packaging, I’m probably not the ideal audience for this book. In reading this review, understand that your mileage may vary.

The Book of Hidden Things takes place in Salento, where every year, on a specific day, four men gather at The American Pizza pizzeria. They made this Pact, to always meet on this day, when they were teenagers. This year, though, Arturo, who goes by Art, is missing. His three friends, Tony, Mauro and Fabio, embark on a search for him that leads them into madness, mysteries and disillusionment. As the story progresses it is revealed that when they were all fourteen, Art disappeared for several days, and never told anyone the truth of what happened to him. Has Art now been murdered by the local Mafia? Has he succumbed to insanity? Has he found a way to cross the “boundaries” and enter a hidden realm, one of wonders?

Dimitri is a native Italian speaker (and lives in Italy) but he wrote this book in English, a feat in itself. It’s British English, and very smooth for the most part. Secondly, although the men have left Salento behind and profess to hate it there, Dimitri’s description of this harsh, isolated and beautiful landscape is rich, convincing, and filled with yearning. Dimitri is capable of creating moments of strangeness throughout the book, lending credence to the “hidden realm” theory. Some scenes, like the one where the three go to an “event” that is a gathering of the Corona (the local Mafia) still stay with me. The scene is not otherworldly, but it’s filled with strangeness and the sense of ages; this kind of ritual, even if there is a table set up with plastic cups for the wine, could be millennia old. The countryside filled with dry rock walls and small shrines and chapels that have become Art’s obsession increase the sense of otherness and strangeness.

Francesco Dimitri

In a book filled with boundaries and thresholds, our four protagonists see themselves as a “threshold” generation; coming of age in the 1990s, they were the last generation to grow up without constant social media and connectivity through cell phones and so on, and much of the book is a meditation about that.

My problems came with the characters and to some extent the plot. “Four men get together to have an adventure” is a common trope both in and out of speculative fiction; there’s nothing wrong with it. The characters were not nuanced enough for me to feel much interest. Fabio is a famous but poor fashion photographer, libidinous and lacking in self-discipline. Mauro is a tax lawyer, married with two daughters, who feels trapped and stultified by his life. Tony is a heart surgeon and out-of-the-closet gay. Tony’s greatest unhappiness is that his sister Elena married into the Corona. Art stayed in Salento. He turned down a full scholarship to Stanford, choosing instead to go off on a self-directed route of arcane study. The men discover that he had been growing and selling marijuana, which would put him in the crosshairs of the Corona… but the Corona has given him permission, because Art did their leader, the King, a magical favor.

Art’s theory, as he spells out in the handwritten book the men get ahold of, is that there are boundaries between the human world and the hidden realm. While those in the hidden realm can cross easily into our world, it is harder for humans to trespass — and trespassing is how Art views it. To open a crack in the boundary wall, to cross, a person needs to act, with intention: to knowingly transgress. The more often you do this, or the more jaded a person you are, the more transgressive the act must be, and most often it involves spilling blood (not your own). Mauro is a father of two little girls, and he’s brought his family with him as a mini-vacation on this trip. It’s easy to see where this is all going.

Oh, and a word of warning: cute furry animals are hurt and killed on the page in this book; just be aware.

Tony remains the spokesman for Human Decency, but because all of the men have to have dark corners to their souls, he is tainted by association because of his sister’s marriage. Fabio is already a transgressor who pays the price. Mauro Learns a Valuable Lesson.

In some ways, The Book of Hidden Things reminds me of Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River. It isn’t just because of the presence of a crime family in the background, pulling the strings; nor is it the fact that one of the three boys was taken and subjected to horrors. It is a sense of the direction each of the three men go in that book, as they struggle to make sense of that catastrophe in their lives. Dimitri’s characters are only echoes of Lehane’s, and this is clearly fantastical, but if you liked Mystic River this may resonate with you.

Michele, the lieutenant of the Corona, who the guys call “The Dancing Master,” is a plot device, as is Anna, Mauro’s wife and Fabio’s old flame. There is a woman acolyte of Art’s who provides some information and becomes a game piece in the escalating conflict between the guys and the Corona. Art’s experimentation with BDSM (he’s turned an old stone outbuilding into a BDSM dungeon) doesn’t fit logically into the plot since it’s not a transgression if it’s consensual, and clearly, in this sparsely populated, conservative area, Art was not abducting people to torture them to open a doorway. The idea of a willing sacrifice is not developed enough here to explain the BDSM, no matter how strange and colorful it is in the story.

Dimitri did convince me completely that Art had visited another realm and that he was insane, both, and that’s an achievement. This monologue alone had a lot to do with that.

No, the context is important, the context is everything indeed. You refuse to listen to me even though I never let you down. Why do you refuse to listen to me? I have tried to have one of you guys open the way, so that we wouldn’t have to do anything too horrible, but it didn’t work. You have to understand, Mauro, that killing animals is not enough anymore for me to trespass. Not remotely… 

In that moment it’s easy to see that Art has already permanently passed beyond the boundaries of humanity. That was powerful, so powerful that it made the ending implausible. I could not believe that Art would make the final choice he did so easily. We are supposed to see that Tony persuaded him. I believe that Tony would persuade the others, but I was never convinced with Art. Similarly, while Fabio pays a steep price for the sins he’s committed in the book, later things are easily — very easily — put right for him. It’s a happy ending for nearly everyone, one that isn’t earned.

Elena, Tony’s sister, is one of the better characters, and I found her choices powerful, deceptive and believable.

While I didn’t enjoy The Book of Hidden Things, I can recommend it for the writing and the descriptions of a strange otherworldly landscape; and I think people who like “four guys go on a quest” books will like this more than I did. You know who you are.

Published in July 2018. From “one of the most significant figures of the last generation of fantasy”, comes Francesco Dimitri’s debut novel in English, an enthralling and seductive fantasy following four old friends and the secrets they keep. Four old school friends have a pact: to meet up every year in the small town in Puglia they grew up in. Art, the charismatic leader of the group and creator of the pact, insists that the agreement must remain unshakable and enduring. But this year, he never shows up. A visit to his house increases the friends’ worry; Art is farming marijuana. In Southern Italy doing that kind of thing can be very dangerous. They can’t go to the Carabinieri so must make enquiries of their own. This is how they come across the rumours about Art; bizarre and unbelievable rumours that he miraculously cured the local mafia boss’s daughter of terminal leukaemia. And among the chaos of his house, they find a document written by Art, The Book of Hidden Things, that promises to reveal dark secrets and wonders beyond anything previously known. Francesco Dimitri’s first novel written in English, following his career as one of the most significant fantasy writers in Italy, will entrance fans of Elena Ferrante, Neil Gaiman and Donna Tartt. Set in the beguiling and seductive landscape of Southern Italy, this story is about friendship and landscape, love and betrayal; above all it is about the nature of mystery itself.

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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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4 comments

  1. I looked at this at B&N this weekend, and the hanging dog on the cover put me off. It sounds like it was truth in advertising.

  2. It is pure truth in advertising.

  3. Francesco Lato /

    Just for the record: Dimitri lives in London, non in Italy.

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