The Book of Hidden Things is a lavish literary fantasy about friendship, identity, and the crossing of boundaries. It is Italian author Francesco Dimitri’s debut novel in English, although he has something of a back catalogue in Italian, which, judging by this effort, might be worth seeking out if you read the language.
Although The Book of Hidden Things is marketed as a fantasy novel, this is not something that is immediately apparent. It begins with a mystery, and the direction it will then take is deliberately obscure. Arturo may or may not be missing. He has failed to turn up to dinner with his three best friends: an annual dinner that happens because of a pact made between the four of them seventeen years previously. Art is a genius, but also eccentric, possibly unhinged. When his friends go looking for him they make a series of disturbing discoveries, including a manuscript that links back to a strange event that happened when they were children. Has Art done something miraculous? Or something horrific?
The story is told, in turns, in the first person by Art’s three friends, Fabio, Mauro, and Tony. As the plot progresses it becomes clear that not only has Art been keeping secrets from his friends, but that they are all keeping secrets from one another. Each character has a clear narrative style, and noticeably different attitudes, with each chapter, in present tense or flashback, building up the layers of the story.
At first, nothing particularly wild happens; it is a creeping kind of drama, and much of it is internal or everyday conflict. But even here there is an unrelenting psychological tension, which builds to a sense of menace: a fear of the brutality of the ordinary world as well as the possibility of the supernatural. There are releases of this tension throughout, but the sense of catharsis is short-lived, as each release ups the ante and merely leads to further dramatic tension.
The protagonists are ordinary men in their thirties, confounded by themselves as well as the situation they find themselves in. Returning to their home town of Casalfranco in southern Italy, the characters question what they have become, set against who they were and who they hoped to be, just as they question who Art is, and whether they truly understand either the nature of reality or the reality of his nature.
Fantasy doesn’t need to be poetic or floral, and it is to Dimitri’s credit that he has written his novel in a straightforward way, that makes it feel very real, and yet is no less evocative for this simplicity. It is luscious in its descriptions of food and sex, and stark in its discussion of failed lives and dying relationships. It throws in fleeting references to pop-culture, and the faux trappings of modernity, juxtaposed with the ancient, the rustic, the localness of small-town life and beliefs. Its themes of trespass, transgression, and transcendence relate to the smaller aspects of the characters’ lives, as well as the larger story, as do its themes of identity and authenticity.
There is little more that can be said of the plot of The Book of Hidden Things without either giving too much away or making it seem too small in stature. The story is strong, and the characters and their relationships feel real, as do their reactions to events, their sense of disbelief and wonder. It’s more of a psychological drama than an obvious fantasy story, and it works on several levels, managing to be both a page-turner and a thinker. Its fantasy element is subtle and ambiguous, and will leave the reader questioning what they should believe. The Book of Hidden Things is modern magic realism at its best.