The Book of Hidden Things  – ★★★★
This book is the first English-language novel of an Italian author Francesco Dimitri. It is set in the south of Italy and begins with three friends arriving to a cafe in Casalfranco, Puglia, and missing the fourth person. These guys made a pact when they were young that each year – on 10th June – no matter where they are in their lives they will return to their home town and toast their childhood friendship anew. This year, Fabio, a London photographer, Tony, a Rome surgeon, and Mauro, a lawyer in Milan, miss their leader – Art…well, a genius, a source of all wisdom. Art’s disappearance triggers unpleasant memories in the minds of all three men, and when they find some damning evidence in Art’s house, their worries escalate to a whole new level, making them question their own sense of what is real. This book’s content is a bit disturbing and sometimes graphic, but I enjoyed the book more than I thought I would. In fact, it was a page-turner for me and I liked the writing style. At the centre of this fast-paced and very atmospheric thriller-story is this claustrophobic mystery, and when we are not getting to the heart of it, we are considering the significance of countryside folklore and nostalgia for the past.
The Book of Hidden Things is a rather intriguing read. Casalfranco is a town where everyone knows everyone else and when a mysterious disappearance occurs, we have a cosy and claustrophobic mystery-thriller. Fabio, Mauro and Tony’s mate has disappeared and they will stop at nothing to find their friend. Art as enigma sustains the story. Fabio, Tony and Mauro are all obsessed with him, and with his larger-than-life personality to a certain degree. Art is a charismatic, even if eccentric, leader who is “impossible to the end” [Dimitri, 2018: 285]. Art writes: “I’m convinced that a life spent on an obsession is a life well spent. Give me joy, or give me sorrow, just keep me away from blandness” [Dimitri, 2018: 313]. His friends suspect that Art may be again moving towards one of his intellectual “phases”, and he embodies some sort of a Fight Club  male mentality for other characters. However, it is Art’s latest project which both puzzles and shocks his friends. Art has written a book titled The Book of Hidden Things, and the more the friends find about this project the more they wish they did not know.
Like recently-reviewed The Dry, the plot concerns a person who comes back to his place of childhood after a long time of absence. Upon setting their foot in their childhood town, the friends in the novel begin to reminisce. While some of their memories are happy, others are more disturbing and filled with regret. Their careless youth no longer seems so shiny looking back, and disillusioned Fabio, in particular, finds it hard to admit his past mistakes. The friends’ grown-up lives are compared to the lives of “hamsters in a wheel” [Dimitri, 2018: 123], and The Book of Hidden Things becomes a melancholic tale of facing up to one’s life choices and accepting one’s place in life.
It is a good decision to write this novel from the perspectives of different characters. The book becomes more complex and thought-provoking that way. It provides an additional uncertainty element because, as readers, we never quite sure whether any one (Fabio, Mauro or Tony) assesses the situation presented correctly. Each person definitely sees the situation surrounding Art and their friendship with others from their own point of view, and it is also telling that none of the main characters are truly sympathetic. Fabio, in particular, is presented as rather too sex-obsessed, with sporadic misogyny in him. In sum, there are no true heroes in the book and that is also fine.
The final great thing about this book is how atmospheric it is. The action takes place in scenic Puglia, Italy. As readers, we are constantly “assaulted” by the smells and tastes of Italy, that kind of Italy which is sunny and hot, and finds itself on the Adriatic Sea coast. We immerse ourselves into that relaxed lifestyle of southern Italy as the characters pour glasses of Primitivo wine and help themselves to large portions of bruschetta and orecchiette. Images emerge of people relaxing in the shades of vineyards, olive groves and canopies of wisteria, while taking their cappuccinos and espressos. This is also that kind of a place where the powers of a local Catholic church co-exist with the area domination of a local mafia – the Sacra Corona Unita, and both feature to a certain extent in the novel.
As for negative things to say, I do have a problem with this book, but it is more to do with its content and, therefore, I outlined my concerns below in the spoiler section.
The Book of Hidden Things is a tale of mystery, obsession and friendship. The warning is that the book contains graphic descriptions of sex, drug use and some other disturbing content. However, the book is still a great read because it is a convincing thriller, while being contemplative at the same time. While we and the trio of friends get closer to what happened to Art, we also delve into village folklore, meditate on the nature of childhood dreams and the growing up, and get a full taste of southern Italy. If you liked Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, then the chances are you will also like The Book of Hidden Things.
I did not have a problem with a lot of disturbing or graphic content in this book. Some female characters in this story are considered in rather degrading-to-their-sex terms. However, I did not have a problem even with that because I realise that this book is written from the point of view of male characters brought up in Italy (in a macho culture, obviously, because they clearly display these precise qualities), and it must contain their hidden thoughts. I did have a problem with the fact that not one single female character in the novel is presented in a good light: the females introduced are either sex objects and promiscuous and morally-loose women, women who “betray”, “criminal” women or mad women. Even that would not have been a problem if other things above did not exist. It is rather an aggregation of many anti-female elements in this story, which makes the book overall leave a bit of an unfavourable impression in that regard. I am not saying that the novel is overtly misogynistic, but it has little faith in living women and certainly none of the respect, and this could be, potentially, a bit problematic for female readers. I believe if the author downplayed some graphic content in his book, as well as had more belief in his female characters, there would have been a better novel.