Francesco Dimitri’s The Book of Hidden Things is hard to define. It has elements of fantasy, and has been described as such, but it also veers into moments of real horror. In many ways, this book reads like a mystery or a crime thriller. It’s also a book about adulthood, or, rather, about the disappointments of adulthood or what I like to call “life’s ultimate despair.” But really, this is a book about friendship.
Four old friends have years ago formed a Pact (capital “P”) to meet back together at the same time every year in their decrepit, small hometown of Casalfranco, in the south of Italy. In a town beset by organized crime (run by the ruthless Corona), impotent police, corrupt clergy, and bleak futures, school friends Fabio, Tony, Mauro, and their enigmatic leader, Art, take their first chances to leave and start their own adventurous adult lives. Now in their mid-thirties, they’ve returned once again, only to discover that Art, the glue that has held them all together, has disappeared. This begins our heroes’ adventure, as the three friends try to piece together the mystery of Art and the man he has become.
But what has become of these friends? Fabio pretends to be a successful fashion photographer, but hides the fact that much of his life is a sham. Mauro is a lawyer with a beautiful wife and children (a wife, Anna, who, by the way, Fabio has always lusted over), but he’s bored and unhappy. Tony is a successful doctor who, fortunately, hasn’t been rejected by his family for being gay, but finds himself terrified at the life his beloved sister, Elena, has chosen: being married to a low level crime boss.
And Art? Art can do it all. He grew up a strangely charismatic, inquisitive spirit who embraced knowledge and discovery, flirting with the arts and sciences, destined for great things. He plays a major part in every one of his friends’ lives, pushing them to take chances, like when he convinces Fabio to become a photographer to satisfy his pubescent needs:
Art suggested photography. Since the end of the summer before he had been testing a theory, namely that you can get girls to undress more or less as you like if you tell them it is for artistic (‘artistic’ was the key word) purposes.
Or when he brought together Mauro and Anna years ago. Mauro, remembering this event, encapsulates what the rest of the Pact feels about their lost friend, “That was Art for you: a force of nature, unstoppable, and, as often as not, unintelligible.” Art himself only ended up returning to Casalfranco to become a drug dealer before his disappearance. But there was something more to what he was doing and there are rumors of strange behavior and him curing a girl of leukemia. Art clearly had a secret, one that stretches back to their childhood, when he inexplicably disappeared for seven days, seemingly vanishing off of the face of the Earth.
I found the secrets and dread behind both of Art’s disappearances captivating to read, which is good since so much of my enjoyment of the book hinged on Francesco Dimitri’s abilities to instill wonder. Called “one of the most significant figures of the latest generation of fantasy” by the likes of Alan D. Altieri, Dimitri doesn’t lose a step with writing his first book in English instead of his native Italian. What’s especially thrilling is this sense of dread pervading in the everyday, something hidden behind the natural. The Olive Grove that Fabio investigates has trees with twisted trunks that make him think of “the damned in hell. An eerie drumming will start at any minute, and they will take life and start dancing around me — and I will be their lunch.” He continues, “You don’t have to believe in ghosts in order to know that some places have an atmosphere, that they retain, if not a memory, at least an echo of what happened in the past.” What Fabio finds in the grove is terrifying and grotesque, and that’s just the beginning.
It all comes back to Art. Even with his disappearance, he looms large in the lives of his friends, and feels all the more substantial because of this. On the other hand, the rest of the friends didn’t really grab me beyond their connections to Art. It wasn’t so much that they were unlikable (I’m all for unlikable!) as much as they were unremarkable. Fabio, the most interesting and troubled of the three remaining friends, turns out to be the most petty, and the problems surrounding his life hold less importance as the are revealed. When he finally admits that he’s just a “selfish, egotistical wanker, and selfish, egotistical wankers make for very poor friends,” it feels as though he’s right on the nose, and it’s disappointing that there’s not more behind his limitations.
Still, this all could be the point with Francesco’s characters. They’re not remarkable or special, they’re just here, like the rest of us journeying into adulthood, and the real tragedy may just be that banality. In that way it was masterful that I could be so connected with this friendship, the Pact but not the friends within the Pact (beyond Art). The friendship was so defined, and admirable, and true, that it took its own shape and merits its own character. And I was rooting for it.
That being said, the story is captivating and I found myself rushing towards the book’s conclusion. As the book progresses, the friends discover Art’s manuscript, The Book of Hidden Things, which reveals a world beyond pain, suffering, and, well, banality. To reveal more would hinder a reader’s discovery and enjoyment, so I’ll stop there. But you shouldn’t stop here.
The Book of Hidden Things
By Francesco Dimitri
Published July 3, 2018
Francesco Dimitri is an Italian magic realist author living in London, a business story-teller, and a lifetime searcher for wonder. He has written in many different forms (nonfiction, fiction, comics, cinema, digital media, essays, magazines) and worked for top business clients. In his quest for wonder he has shot documentaries about UFO cults, slept deep into the forests of Transylvania, conversed with mathematicians, artists, chefs, psychologists, stage magicians, and strangers in crowds.