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Book Review: The Hidden by Tobias Hill

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The words “beautifully written” or “lyrical” are so overused in this age of literary fiction that their application to a contemporary novel seems almost to be damning with faint praise. Yet, to call the prose of Tobias Hill’s The Hidden anything other than beautiful and lyrical is a grave omission. Hill himself says, “Like some of the best contemporary novelists, I come to the novel from poetry.” His poetic sensibility is one of the few aspects of The Hidden that shines overtly from the page. “Dusk. An owl quartering the fields. The far-silent fields of the night. The empty habitations and hollow realms.” Simple words, elegantly employed — his descriptive prose evokes the sensual essence of the setting. “Mountains. Cold translating the glass. Snow holding its position. Deadfall under hemlocks. Dead trunks and stumps of pine. The obduracy of winter. Reproach and uninhabitation.” The reader sees the scene, the mountains and snow, feels the cold, hears the crunch of the deadfall, smells the pine, experiences the loss and desolation.

The Hidden behaves in this maddening, enthralling way. It brings the reader in, entangles him with painful intimacy in the world of the novel, and keeps him separate, hiding secrets. The reader is engulfed by the story and isolated from it. Like a Russian Matryoshka doll or the archaeological dig it depicts, The Hidden is far more than it appears. Layer upon layer, story beneath story, parallels tucked inside one another.

“It was as if he had gone wrong somewhere. As if, at some point, he had turned down the wrong road without ever realizing it, so that now he headed on towards some dark and unexpected place.” On its surface, The Hidden is a taut suspense novel set in an ancient dig in modern Greece. Ben Mercer, a classical archeologist, flees his demolished personal life in Oxford and retreats to Greece. A chance encounter with an Oxford colleague in the fascinatingly named Athenian suburb of Metamorphosis leads Ben to Laconia, the site of ancient Sparta. Yet, as Ben joins the dig with the painful eagerness for inclusion that characterizes him, secrets begin to ooze with toxic persistence around the edges of his new life.

Hill’s pacing is flawless in its winding toward and brief releases of tension. The dialog is crisp almost to the point of curtness. The absence of quotation marks and paucity of notation in the dialog builds momentum, and gives the reader a sense both of Ben’s isolation and of the reader’s own:

The wind caught at Eberhard’s hair. He pushed the last thin strands out of his eyes and smiled again.
–You sound unhappy, Ben.
– No, I’m not. Not at all.
–Good. I didn’t think you were. You must tell me, if you are.
– Sometimes you leave me out.
– Out of what?
– If I knew that I wouldn’t be left out, would I?
– Don’t be angry. We are trying.
– But you keep things from me. Like the jackals.

The terse, rapid fire dialog is interspersed with descriptive scenes that manage to achieve both rich detail and subtle ambiguity. Like Ben, the reader often emerges from a scene with the sense that he has been given clues he cannot read, that something important is hidden.

One of the most graphic, and to my mind, compellingly obscure scenes unfolds early in the book, while Ben is still in Metamorphosis. Working in a restaurant with other exiled immigrants, Ben submits to the verbal torture of the owner’s son. As Nikos goads him into a double-edged discussion of the history of Sparta, the sauce beneath Ben’s whisk begins to unravel:

–I’m busy, Nikos
–No, No! Now it’s your turn, When the Spartans caught our sailors, what is it they did to them?
He stopped beating. His heart was going faster than he would have liked. His fingers were glued-up with egg whites. And there was something wrong with the mix, a resistance to his work, the whisk clogging up with something. A snag of solidity, as if the stock had been too warm or trickled in too impatiently, so that the eggs had cooked too soon.
–Did they kill them?
–That’s not right.
He drew out the whisk. Bits of matter clung to the wires, grey pink. He laid the whisk to one side and bent closer, trying to work it out. The colour of the mixture had changed, too. It was no longer shining but dull, the plastic yellow tinged with brown.
–Come on. What did they do to them, Englishman?
–Leave him, Nikos.
–What’s up with you? We’re just telling Modest a story.
–It’s Ben’s last night.
–Are you telling me what to do?
–No.
–Are you ordering me?
–Come on.
–ARE YOU TELLING ME —
–Their hands, he said. They cut off their hands.
He stood looking down into the bowl. A flaw of blood rose to the surface. At first it was only a crack in the yellow, gaudy as a lava lamp. Then it became a bubble, breaking and spreading. More blood than he would have imagined possible.
He heard Nikos exclaim and step back. In the blood’s wake the foetus itself was rising up. It was big, almost ready to be born, its skin already a stubble of wet feathers. Its form had been beaten to a bulging rag of flesh, the symmetry flayed out of it. It was bodiless, headless, natureless, protoplasmic. It was a thing transfigured.

On first reading, this scene arrests the reader with its incongruity. The gruesome weight of the picture looms in the otherwise banal setting of Metamorphosis. The significance of this scene lies, at least on the surface, in its foreshadowing of the book’s shocking conclusion. Yet, beneath the foreshadowing, deeper layers unfold and tease at the mind in the sense of something unraveling, “a flaw of blood,” something unpleasant and disruptive lurking in the mixture.

Ben acknowledges within himself a persistent desperation for and failure at inclusion. Striving for acceptance, he falls flat, and lands upon the prickly fringe of any group. Ben is a difficult character to like, for his peers, and for the reader. At first, the inability to empathize with the protagonist slowed my enjoyment of the book. I found it difficult to care what happened to such a colorless, disconnected individual. However, Hill’s prose drives the story forward, dragging both Ben and the reader in its wake.

Hill weaves essays into the story. These “Notes Toward a Thesis” are primarily Ben’s — notes on Spartan history and society. One such essay belongs to Eberhard, the colleague Ben encounters in Metamorphosis. On the surface, the essays explain the history of ancient Sparta, are notes explaining Ben’s desire to join the dig. Below that thin layer of topsoil, the notes illustrate parallel story lines; they explain the concept of the Hidden, the disaffected young men of Sparta, and their covert and sinister terrorist role. Below that, the language of the notes reveals the changes in Ben’s reality as he is drawn into the “games” of the others on the dig.

As the main story becomes increasingly dream-like, the Notes Toward a Thesis, while degenerating from any scholastic standard, seem to be the only link between Ben and reality. In these notes, Ben shows a greater awareness of the dangerous absurdity of his position than he ever displays in the primary story. The insertion of the “Note” by Eberhard also highlights the differences between the characters.

Hill’s deft use of language enhances the place of each character in the novel. For me, the only jarring note was the “American” spoken by Missy, the project director. British novelists have a tendency to portray American speech awkwardly, with colloquialisms that seem stuck in the 1950’s such as “swell.” At first, Missy’s voice seemed to be a typical not-quite-right portrayal of a British stereotype of American speech. Given Hill’s otherwise flawless ear for language, I was disappointed that Missy should sound so stilted. However, closer reading revealed that another American, Elschen — a member of the “in” group — possesses none of the verbal ticks attributed to Missy. Hill slyly employs a common stereotyping of American English to highlight Missy’s place outside the group.

The last section of the book is entitled “The Careful Application of Terror.” Throughout the book, the “Notes Toward a Thesis” have depicted the use of terror in a failing society — ancient Sparta—to maintain order, and the exploitation of the youth of that society in the application of terror. As the book plummets toward its conclusion, the clues that have been tucked into the plot spring to the surface in a horrifying parallel between modern and Spartan society.

The Hidden can be read and enjoyed as a taut and disturbing thriller. However, to dig deeper is to uncover layers that reveal our isolation from each other and our connections to the brutality of the past. With uncommon eloquence, Tobias Hill has crafted a novel that teases the mind with its secrets, inviting further excavation.

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About Christy Corp-Minamiji

  • http://carolinehagood.typepad.com/ Caroline Hagood

    Beautiful review. I really enjoyed reading it.

  • http://corp-minamiji.typepad.com Christy Corp-Minamiji

    Thanks, Caroline. The typo on page one is making me crazy, but I sent an e-mail to the editors, so hopefully it’ll get fixed.

    If you haven’t read it, you should check out the book. Hill’s prose is gorgeous; with your love of language, I think you’d appreciate it. The plot is deeply disturbing, however.

  • http://cindalsays.posterous.com Cindal Lee Heart

    Wow! This certainly seems like a book that will keep me locked up in my house for the weekend! Thank you for this review.

  • Tobias Hill

    Dear Christy,

    You give me more credit than I’m due for Missy’s speech: I was aiming for a more carefree, unguarded voice than the others have, but I think there is a failing there in my ear for the many varieties of US and likely Canadian English…Oh well. Next time.

    I’m glad the book reached you. I don’t reply to reviewers on the whole, but your piece is well written and acute, and it’s heartening to see the novel communicating itself so clearly. Best wishes,

    Tobias.

  • stephanie corp

    That’s my sister!!