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.