In all honesty, I can’t decide whether I liked that ending or not. It sorta demands more storytelling when this book is clearly complete as it is, and while I could not help but smile in satisfaction at the last word of the novel, I also felt — in hindsight and not, crucially, at the time itself — that it leaves things open-ended in a way that is less “here, go play with your imagination and interpret as you will” and more “teehee, there is more that I’m not telling you, too bad.” Which, for a book named after the book written by one of the main characters, the charismatic and possibly insane Art, is fitting despite, and perhaps in some small part because of, how unsatisfying it can feel.
Well there, that’s enough metaphysics in fiction for this review: let’s talk about the plot. Four friends return to their small hometown in the south of Italy every year to catch up on old times. There’s art photographer Fabio, lawyer Mauro, surgeon Tony, and Art, who lives in Casalfranco again after years of gadding about abroad. Only this year, Art doesn’t show up, and the three friends’ search for their missing mate sets into motion a tale that is partly fantastical, uniquely Italian and wholly mature.
See, it’s been so long since I’ve read adult fantasy that I’ve almost forgotten how weirdly real it feels compared to YA. To a certain extent, it’s hard to really categorize The Book Of Hidden Things as a fantasy novel, when the three friends easily concoct reasonable explanations for most of what they run into. TBoHT is primarily a book about friendship, a deep dive into the psyches of these very different men and the roads they’ve taken since leaving their small town beginnings. There is betrayal and violence but above all a deep and abiding bond between the four of them. TBoHT is a celebration of male friendship that also examines family ties and religion in ways that are even-handed and convincing. I was a little concerned, at the beginning, that the women in the book would be cardboard cutouts, and while they’re clearly supporting characters, they are complex and strong and their own people, not merely consigned to being passive wives and sisters and girlfriends.
Shockingly, this is the author’s first book in English, after establishing himself as a master of fantasy in Italian. I’m so glad Francesco Dimitri has decided to write in English, as it really allows those of us unfamiliar with his mother tongue to enjoy his writings as he intends them (no slight to translators, who do very important work, but nuance occasionally gets lost when writing from the original.) His depiction of an Italy that is at once modern, fantastic and deeply rooted in history is a joy to experience.
Oh! I should warn you: the depiction of the hanged dog on the cover is accurate to the contents of the book, so if that kind of thing bothers you, you might want to skip this.