Atmospheric and suspenseful with prose that transports you to Puglia, Italy, The Book of Hidden Things is one of the most well written books I read this year. I was drawn to it because of this interview with the author. Both it and the book’s title made me wonder what exactly the story is about.
Francesco Dimitri is an Italian author who has written several books in his native language and has now done a superb job of writing a fantasy novel in a foreign tongue — English. The Book of Hidden Things is his debut English novel that he translated himself. It’s about four friends — Fabio, Tony, Mauro, and Art — who made a pact at the end of high school to return to the same spot in their home town in Puglia, Italy, every year on the same date. But this time, Art, who instigated the pact, does not show up.
The three friends become worried and search for Art, which increases their worries because they are told Art has changed, he had started to grow weed which is dangerous to do in their town, and had begun to act strangely, talking to his dog and apparently working on a book called The Book of Hidden Things. The friends are also strongly reminded of a time in their teen years when Art mysteriously disappeared one night in an ancient olive grove for seven days and just as mysteriously showed up again. But the more they search, the stranger the rumors become until they realize that finding Art might be more dangerous than they thought. (Goodreads)
This was such a good read! I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did, especially considering that the story wasn’t what I expected it to be. I expected something more fantastical than what was presented. I didn’t expect the story to be grounded in our real world or to be a contemporary of our time. I didn’t expect the mystery and suspense that kept me so hooked that I completed the book in just 3 days, and I didn’t expect it to become a favorite. But I’m glad for these pleasant surprises that made my reading experience with this book a great one.
I liked the story for a variety of reasons, the foremost being its prose. I’m a sucker for descriptive writing that transports you as you read. I was so caught up in this story and so convinced of its setting and atmosphere that my surroundings melted away as I read. I could feel the heat of Casalfranco with its bright, blazing sun that’s so intense that it sharply outlines the objects that dot the landscape. I could feel the hot breath of Sirocco — Suicide Sirocco — that hot, muggy wind that blows in from the sea to stir up bad thoughts, and I yearned to see one of the infamous thunderstorms that roll in after it. That part about the boys swimming in the sea in the middle of a thunderstorm was enthralling! (But I’d never do crazy shit like that.) I was convinced of the winters that make you wish you were dead and that carries with it a psychopathic wind that torture you, and I could imagine that eerie, silent olive grove that has a strong sense of presence that I could feel through the book. This transportive power of the story is the main reason why I like this book so much. (And the FOOD!! So much food. Don’t get me started on the food. I need to visit Italy for some food.)
The story itself is quite interesting and when done, I had to mull it over for a couple days because I didn’t know what to make of it. The end is open-ended. Ultimately, the reader must decide what had happened and if the friends’ search led to realizing something fantastical or proving that a man is mentally deranged. I usually don’t like this sort of ending and would get angry at the story, especially, as in this case, how abrupt the end feels. But luckily, I was forewarned in Mogsy’s review of it. That helped to ease the sharpness of the end so instead of being upset, I was left pensive, wondering what to believe and what I make of the book overall. Mostly, my thoughts were about whether or not I would classify this book as fantasy.
This story balances on a thin edge. The fantasy in it is light, almost nonexistent, and it’s up to the reader to decide if the fantastical is present. I loved that about it. For me, it’s fantasy and the mention of the fantastical bits are real but many of the characters don’t believe in it or refuse to see it. Believing this is made even harder by the fact that only the most unreliable narrators/characters claim to have experienced the fantastical. It’s so twisty. (The damn book fucks with your mind! Thanks Francesco Dimitri.) However, I also consider the book as literary fiction. To me, literary fiction isn’t exactly a genre since a book in any genre can be considered literary; but I think some readers will miss out on this amazing book because they’ll never venture into the fantasy section to discover it. So for me, this is a literary fantasy novel that everyone, whether or not you like fantasy, should try.
I love how twisty the story is. Your take-away from it depends on which of the characters you want to believe and what you want to believe. The story is told from the perspective of the three friends who search for Art: the photographer, Fabio; Tony, who is a surgeon; and Mauro, a lawyer. (I have to pause here to reminisce a bit. 😊 Hmm… okay.) Thinking of the personality of these three and how well it fits their profession and how it shows in their narration, makes me chuckle a bit. Fabio is a dreamer. Tony sees possibilities. Mauro is practical. It’s also interesting that Art — charismatic, enigmatic, magnetic, and intensely intelligent — does not have such a distinguished career but has deeply influenced the path of his friends’ lives. He’s the manipulator — the puppet master. The characters aren’t likable, but not entirely unlikeable either. They have faults. They make mistakes. They cross lines (though boundaries is a big theme in this book).
Of all the narrators, I think Fabio is the most unreliable and the one who keeps the most information from the reader (or rather, he takes his own sweet time to admit anything). His is the perspective we begin with and his is the perspective that always makes me curious about what is really happening. None of the narrators know what happened to Art since his disappearance is a mystery to all three of them, but I get more answers from Tony and Mauro than Fabio. (I felt so bad for Fabio. His relationship with his dad is heartbreaking.) It’s interesting that when the fantastical stuff start happening toward the end, Fabio’s perspective is the one that stands out to me the most, probably because he claims to have almost felt the fantastical, but I debate the truth of that (with myself) because Fabio’s head is forever in the clouds and the only other people who acknowledge the fantastical are either considered crazy or are too dangerous to trust.
I could keep going, but I’ll most likely spoil something, so I’ll stop here. This one was a really good read and totally worth you picking it up. I look forward to seeing what else Dimitri will publish (in English — wish I could read Italian).
So good! I urge you to read it too.
Buy | Borrow | Bypass
Though I Borrowed mine from the library. I do plan to purchase my own copy so I can highlight all the things I couldn’t in the library book.
Quotes from the book:
“Death is a progressive shrinking that brings you from vastness to nothingness.”
“Winter in Salento makes you wish you were dead, with everything turning cold and bitter and even more hostile than usual. The wind, in particular, behaves like a psychopath. It bites and lashes at you, and when it blows from the sea, it crushes you with the stink of dead fish and a dampness that weighs you down like clothing when you are drowning.”