Four old school friends have a pact: to meet up every year in the small town in Puglia they grew up in. Art, the charismatic leader of the group and creator of the pact, insists that the agreement must remain unshakable and enduring. But this year, he never shows up.
A visit to his house increases the friends’ worry; Art is farming marijuana. In Southern Italy doing that kind of thing can be very dangerous. They can’t go to the Carabinieri so must make enquiries of their own. This is how they come across the rumours about Art; bizarre and unbelievable rumours that he miraculously cured the local mafia boss’s daughter of terminal leukaemia. And among the chaos of his house, they find a document written by Art, The Book of Hidden Things, that promises to reveal dark secrets and wonders beyond anything previously known.
Oh wow. This book does one of my favorite things: makes you question what is real and what isn’t.
At first it’s very grounded in reality and the story feels more literary in a lot of ways. We have these four friends and the story is told from three of their POV’s, switching between them at various points. We delve into their lives, what has been going on with them since they were boys together, how they’ve turned out, and whether or not they’re happy with the paths they’ve chosen. And at first everything seems completely ordinary, even after they discuss their missing friend, Art, who didn’t show for their longstanding dinner meet up and whether or not they should go looking for him. The present and the past is interwoven as the men remember various incidents from their times together when they were younger while trying to solve the puzzle of their missing friend.
The first hint we have of ‘things are about to get weird’ is when there’s a brief mention of a strange incident that happened when they were kids that no one ever talks about. Why aren’t they talking about it? What happened, and why is it so off-limits? Why does everyone seem spooked about it? These are the questions you start asking yourself as a reader and it’s this technique of teasing bits of story, hinting at a mystery, that pulls you right into the story. Before you know it, you’re captured. First, we have the immediate problem that needs to be solved. What happened to Art? But then we have the mystery of the past which is also, what happened to Art?
As we get deeper into the story more begins to unravel all around. We discover the guy’s lives all have problems. Fabio is broke and hiding it from his friends who think his career is glamorous. Mauro is so busy working in a job he doesn’t necessarily like in order to make sure his family is taken care of that he’s neglecting his wife and kids in the process. Tony is worried about his sister being caught up in her husband’s business with the local mafia. As they continue the search for their lost friend they each begin to realize their lives are not what they thought they were. Each of them are hiding something from themselves, refusing to see the truth in some way or another. And as their lives are falling apart around them, so the hunt for Art gets stranger and stranger. I’m not going to talk a lot about specific things because I don’t want to spoil anything, but suffice to say: stuff gets weird. And creepy! One night I made the mistake of reading this for a bit before bed and I was almost afraid to turn the lights off and go to sleep. There is some really disturbing scenes in this book, some of which readers may find more than a bit uncomfortable. (Two scenes involve animal cruelty.)
At the end of the day, this book leaves a lot up to the reader to decide. I think it’s our nature as human beings to always be on a quest for the answers to things, just as the protagonists in this story were. Sometimes a story can leave off without giving you any answers and it feels completely unsatisfying. I really believe it’s in the way the story is told, however, because sometimes a story doesn’t give you all the answers and just that bit of unsolved mystery leaves such a big impact on the reader, making one question the nature of the story long after one’s finished reading it. These are some of my favorite types of stories and The Book of Hidden Things is one of them. 4.5 stars.