Book Review: The Book of Hidden Things by Francesco Dimitri
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
The Book of Hidden Things by Francesco Dimitri
Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Titan Books (June 19, 2018)
Length: 385 pages
Author Information: Twitter
In general, I find that a good book usually elicits one of two responses from me: 1) bury my nose in its pages and not come up for air until I’m done, or 2) draw out the experience as long as I can, sipping it like a fine wine in order to properly savor all the flavors and textures the story has to offer. The Book of Hidden Things definitely fell into the latter category, which happens far less often, so for this reason, I already had a feeling it was special. I’m also amazed this was Italian fantasy author Francesco Dimitri’s first novel in English. The ability to write well in a language that isn’t one’s native tongue has always been impressive to me, but the beautiful and lyrical prose in this novel left me further in awe.
The Book of Hidden Things is a story about four childhood friends from a small seaside town called Casalfranco in southern Italy. After high school, they all left home to pursue their individual dreams. Fabio, who grew up with his gruff and overbearing father after his mother died, went on to start a career as a fashion photographer in London. Mauro went to law school in Milan, married his longtime girlfriend, and started a family. Tony moved to Rome, where he eventually came out as gay to his family and friends, and became a very successful surgeon. And Art, the most eccentric and free-spirited of them all, traveled all around the continent doing odd jobs before returning to Casalfranco, where he unexpectedly and uncharacteristically decided to settle after the death of his parents. Art has always been the unpredictable one, bouncing around from one obsession to the next. To his credit though, he was also the one who came up with the Pact—a promise that no matter what, the four friends will meet up in their hometown at the same place at the same time on the same date every year.
Except this year, Art doesn’t show. Concerned, the three others go around town, checking his house and asking people about their friend, only to find that Art has seemingly vanished into thin air. Worse, it appears he had been involved in some very dangerous activities just before his disappearance, like having an affair with a married woman, and growing and selling marijuana in an area where that kind of thing is heavily controlled by the local mafia. This unfortunately rules out going to the Carabinieri for help. Instead, Tony, Mauro, and Fabio take it upon themselves to carry out the investigation, discovering that Art had been in the middle of writing a book before he went missing. Whatever Art has gotten mixed up in, the answer seems to lie in untangling the strange kinds of research he has been doing for this secret project, a mysterious field guide called “The Book of Hidden Things.”
Despite Francesco Dimitri’s reputation as a fantasy novelist, this one was surprisingly light on the fantastical elements. And yet, I felt the magic on every page. Much of this can be attributed to the setting, which the author brings to life in heady, exquisite detail. To the characters who were born and raised in this quiet seaside town, life may have felt like a stifling and oppressive dead end, but everything from the epic summer storms and the hidden olive groves felt enchanting to me as an outsider. They say small towns hold big secrets, and this is no less true for bucolic little Italian village like Casalfranco. But while it may have its share of problems, like corruption and insularity, it is also a place of so much beauty and culture. Often, the narrative paints it as a land that time forgot, where the people are superstitious and traditional to a fault, or how no matter how many upgrades are made to the town, the place still looks as though it’s three decades out of date. But all this simply added to the charm and bewitching quality of the setting, which helped make this particular story all the more effective.
Speaking of which, I find myself at a loss as to how to describe the story, since it doesn’t quite fit neatly into any one category. It’s a mix of drama, mystery, and a bit of psychological suspense. There is also just a hint of the supernatural, just vague enough to make you wonder what’s real and what’s not. At the end of the day, The Book of Hidden Things drew me in completely and irrevocably with its enigmatic appeal.
That said, I don’t think this book would be for everyone. For one thing, while I found the characters fascinating and very well written, many of them are highly unlikeable. However, I also believe much of this is by design. Quite honestly, if you came out of this book without hating at least some of the characters, then the author would have done something wrong. This is a story about some seriously messed up people. A lot of them do terrible, deceitful, repugnant things. Quite a few of these characters can also be described as entitled hypocrites who act like more like whiny ungrateful children than the adults they are supposed to be, and Art himself is a megalomaniacal, manipulative man-child who does his own thing with no regard for the people he hurts along the way. Family ties, friendships, and seemingly unbreakable bonds are severely tested, and there’s no telling whether any of them will come out intact.
Another thing to be aware of is animal cruelty. I know plenty of folks who can read horror and dark fiction about torture, death, and all kinds of despicable things perpetrated on human beings, but they simply cannot abide a story when any sort of harm or abuse is committed on an animal. If this describes you, I would stay far, far away from this book as it will be very upsetting. Speaking as someone who has a pretty strong stomach for anything as long as it’s fiction, even I found certain scenes in here to be quite disturbing.
And finally, if you prefer stories with neat and tidy endings, the last line will make you fly into a rage. I won’t lie, this isn’t really a book that will provide the reader with all the answers, but if you happen to enjoy a bit of ambiguity, you will appreciate how the narrative continues to maintain its air of mystery and “what if?”
In sum, I found myself utterly captivated by The Book of Hidden Things. Even though I managed to pace myself while reading this book, I still never wanted it to end. Of course, the novel was not without its flaws, but Francesco Dimitri tells a story so well, to say I was deeply invested in the plot and characters would be an understatement. I hope in the future he will decide to write in English again; I would love to read more of his work.
I just cannot read animal cruelty at all, which is strange considering the kind of horror I enjoy. The idea of my favourite animals being hurt upsets me too much!
Yeah, I saw that it was a common complaint in reviews of this book, so I thought it would be good idea to warn prospective readers!
Hate to say it, but even though you loved this a lot, everything you describe makes me hate the book without even having read a word 😀 My biggest thing would be the magicless fantasy and unlikeable characters.
Glad you enjoyed it so much though. That “fine wine” kind of appreciation happens so rarely that I like seeing it, no matter the book…
No worries! Like I said, I don’t think this book would be for everyone. And I’m actually glad I was able to provide you with that knowledge so you know this book isn’t for you. A lot of reviewers rave “I loved the book!” or “I hated the book!” but my goal has always been to go beyond that and inform – so I am happy I accomplished that! 😀
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Yep, thanks for the warning. I’m staying away from this one but you are right, I can handle gore, blood and guts but do not touch the animals! Great review though and I’m glad you enjoyed this one.
Yep, I know your feelings on the topic, and I would definitely stay away!
I’m so torn. I’m thrilled to see you give a 4.5 star rating to this, but I did not know about the animal cruelty so I may have to proceed with caution. I do have a review copy so I want to at least try it.
It’s a bit upsetting, but I think you’ll be okay – I know your review history, and you’ve definitely read books that feature much worse 😀
Magical realism done right is fantastic. I like that it is there, or is it there, what is there
Definitely, I loved that about this book! Magical realism isn’t always for me, but I really enjoyed the hint of it here.
Glad to hear you liked this one. I started it at the end of the week and it’s definitely one you want to savor. I’m enjoying it a lot so far.
I’m so glad to hear that! And yeah, this book took me about 7-10 days to read, because I was trying to prolong the experience. Worth it!
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I’m not even halfway through and I’m already looking forward to my review for this one, it’s just so interesting.
I look forward to reading your thoughts too. In the second half, things get even more interesting/bizarre!
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I get so happy when you review a book I’m eager to read. Your review has made me a bit cautious about this one though. I think I’ll like and might immediately fall for the prose, but it sounds as if the end might leave me unsatisfied. I think I’ll first borrow it from the library and then see if I want to purchase it. I’m really curious so i have to read it.
Borrowing from the library is probably the best course of action. Thing is, most of the story was well done, but ARRGGGH, the last page! You get the feeling the author has put the tale to bed, but then, bam! he opens up a whole new can of worms 😀
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You were so right about the ending. The book hooked me immediately and I felt transported to the setting. Was so caught up in the mystery…didn’t know what I was hoping for the resolution…and then that ending. ARGH! That was frustrating. I’m surprised at myself that I like the ending, but it is VERY frustrating too.
Thanks for warning me about it. Otherwise, I think I would have been angry instead of just frustrated.
I think this is a book that I would just love. I don’t know why, sometimes you just have a ‘feeling’ and this book gives me those vibes.
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Ah! I need to hurry up and get to this one!! Great review!!
Great review! Glad to hear you enjoyed it!
I have a copy of this, but haven’t got the time to read it yet. Small town setting is something i usually love in stories and it’s good to know that the fantasy elements are very subtle. Most of the time when i like a fantasy story it’s cuz it’s not fantasy in the traditional meaning.
For me, I feel like all the “negative” aspects of this book would be right up my alley. I love unlikable/questionable characters (if they’re written well, that is), and I’m always clamoring for more ambiguous endings. This book sounds wonderfully atmospheric and complex, and I am most definitely adding it to my TBR. Thanks for bringing it to my attention! 😀
Not an easy book to read, indeed, because it sounds so dark and cruel, but at the same time it sounds intriguing enough to exert a magnetic pull on my curiosity…
Thanks for sharing! 🙂
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Great review! I have a review copy of this that I keep putting off because I have had mixed feelings about picking it up due to the animal abuse content I heard being mentioned by other reviewers, but nobody else had talked about some of the things you mentioned that actually DO make me want to pick this up right away! I’m feeling super conflicted but I think I’ll just make sure I’m in a frame of mind where I think I can handle it, and I’ll give it a try. Thank you so much for the heads up about it!
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