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.
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.