Review: The Book of Hidden Things by Francesco Dimitri

The Book of Hidden Things by Francesco Dimitri

Genre: Literary, Magical Realism

Publisher: Titan Books on June 19, 2o18

Source: Publisher

Four old school friends have a pact: to meet up every year in the small town in Puglia they grew up in.

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.

Have you read THE BOOK OF HIDDEN THINGS? What’s your favourite book with a strong sense of place? Let me know in the comments below!

8 thoughts on “Review: The Book of Hidden Things by Francesco Dimitri

  1. Great review Danya, this sounds like an interesting book, and a hard one to pigeonhole. Great writing, somewhat unlikable characters, a lush setting- definitely sounds like a mixed bag. The depiction of Salento has me curious, and so does the reason for why Art doesn’t show up. Bummer about the characters though.

  2. I also have a review copy which I still need to read, I’m so behind! I’m a little worried that I’ll also have trouble connecting to the characters, and the lack of female characters might not work for me.

  3. Ooh, this sounds cool! I’m not really into literary books but I like the premise. I totally feel ya on needing to connect with the characters. It’s hard to read a book when you don’t like the main cast.

  4. I just finished this myself and I really enjoyed it. The characters definitely have their issues, but if the reader didn’t come out of this one hating most of the people in this story, the author would have failed I think, lol. In a sense, I think it was his way of portraying how the cultural environment of Casalfranco really shaped the lot of them. I think Anna’s final proclamation of the town being sexist was a bit rich at the end though. I mean, Casalfranco has its problems but it also raised the man who was magnanimous enough not to kick her to the curb (as he rightfully should have done) after what she did to him with his best friend, and showing no remorse. That part of it really pissed me off, I think I hated Anna and Fabio the most because of it.

  5. Sometimes it’s interesting to read about characters we “love to hate” and the main characters of this story seem to fit that definition. But I believe that that most interesting character of them all would be the fictional city, and from your description it sounds like an amazing place to explore…
    Thanks for sharing!

  6. Sexist selfish characters? That does not sound like my jam. I can handle not liking characters (mostly) but characters are one of the key driving forces in my reading (unless it’s an amazing plot) and so not rooting for the characters and maybe even disliking them at times is a sign this is not for me. I mean, the writing sounds like it’s great and I’m impressed that it’s from an author whose first language is not english and I applaud that but I just don’t think I could put up with the characters in it. I really don’t. I’m fussy like that.

  7. I’ve read mixed reviews for this one and yet strangely I still want to read it. It kind of calls out to me for some reason.
    Lynn 😀

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