Genre: Literary, Magical Realism
Publisher: Titan Books on June 19, 2o18
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 English language debut THE BOOK OF HIDDEN THINGS is a beautifully written story of intrigue, betrayal, and the abiding friendship between four very different men.
In the dusty town of Casalfranco, located deep in the South of Italy, four teenagers sealed their unlikely friendship with a pact: each year on the same day, they’d all come home to see one another no matter where they were in the world or what they were doing. Every year, they’ve kept that promise. Until now. Art, the architect of the pact and of the boy’s friendship, has failed to show up. And the rumours in town of his recent erratic behaviour and saint-like ability to perform miracles have his friends Fabio, Mauro, and Tony deeply concerned. What exactly has their strange friend gotten himself into, and where is he?
I’m quite torn about this one, y’all. Francesco Dimitri’s writing is lyrical and lush, which is especially impressive given that English is his second language (and this is his first novel written in English). On the other hand, I found his characters sexist, selfish, and ultimately difficult to root for. Given that not a lot actually happens in THE BOOK OF HIDDEN THINGS, I need to connect with the characters in order to love the book. It definitely can’t slide by on accomplished writing alone.
The four men have deeply complex friendships, as expected given their long and storied history with one another. As Fabio, Mauro, and Tony’s perspectives are unveiled, I was shocked by the secrets and lies that seem to be almost foundational to their relationships. Yet even as these secrets are revealed to the characters, there’s a sense that their bond is truly unbreakable. The line between loyalty and betrayal is a fine one in THE BOOK OF HIDDEN THINGS, and as with everything else in their lives, that line is only made murkier by Art’s involvement.
Art is charismatic, frenetic, dangerous, and quite possibly insane. I found him the most interesting of all the main characters, simply because we know the least about his internal life. Since there are no chapters from his perspective, we’re left wondering how much of his explanation for his childhood abduction and his current predicament is fact and how much is delusion. Could his bizarre explanations be true? Francesco Dimitri doesn’t provide any easy answers on that score, so prepare for an open ending if you decide to pick up THE BOOK OF HIDDEN THINGS. The few female characters that populate the story are quite interesting, but their decidedly minor roles disappointed me. I’d love to read an entire book following Elena, Tony’s little sister and high-ranking mafiosa.
Dimitri’s portrayal of the town of Casalfranco is by far my favourite aspect of THE BOOK OF HIDDEN THINGS. The town is mercurial and beautiful, a place where the people are by turns warm and welcoming and hard as steel. Like most of Southern Italy, the town is riddled with corruption and not-so-secretly run by an organized crime outfit. The townspeople are staunchly Catholic and deeply superstitious, with mysticism running deep. Neighbours are just as likely to look out for one another as they are to share juicy gossip, and the one thing they can all agree on is how tourism is encroaching on the original charm of their home. Casalfranco feels entirely real while retaining a sense of the otherworldly, which is a major accomplishment.
Fans of literary fiction with atmospheric settings will be completely immersed in THE BOOK OF HIDDEN THINGS, but those seeking more defined magical realism elements and those looking for lovable characters may find themselves disappointed.