The Hidden came to me from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Programme. Tobias Hill is a new author to me, but he’s written three other novels, a collection of short stories, a book for children and three collections of poetry.
The Hidden is a book about obsession, and secrets, sombre in tone and full of ominous signs of things not being right, of not being what they seem. I enjoyed it, although at times I got a bit lost in the dialogue trying to follow who was speaking and had to backtrack and with the third person narrative I was unsure sometimes who the ‘he’ was. That said, it was a gripping tale of what happens to Ben Mercer. Ben, emotionally vulnerable after his divorce, leaves Oxford for Greece where he joined a group of archaeologists on a dig in Sparta. The group is made up of five people, including a fellow academic from Oxford, and two beautiful young women. Dazzled by their charisma he is desperate to be accepted as part of their group, to be included, to take part in the strange games they play. But it wasn’t just a game.
It’s also about the history of Sparta. Interspersed in the narrative are Ben’s “Notes Towards a Thesis” and it was in these notes that I found clues about the nature of the group. In ancient Sparta the Crypteia meant “The Secret Matter” or “The Hidden” – young men who were “an instrument of subterfuge and terror”.
I liked the contrasts in this book, the vivid descriptions of places. Here is an example where Ben is remembering Oxford:
The fog going out through the streets to the rivers, the Thames and the Cherwell, the Evenlode and the Ock. The city always secretive and all the more so at that hour, as it slept, its acres full of unseen courts and cloisters, its lodgings and stairs full of lives, waiting, pending morning.
And again describing Athens:
He recognised the lay of the land, the hills and saddle that ran between them. He knew the history of the ruins on each, the palaces and shrines and graves built one atop the other, like corals, the living on the dead. But the green of the slopes in the sunlight, and the flash of spring flowers; and beyond the ziggurat-steps of the Menelaion, the clear air across the valley, and the city below, and the mountains beyond the city, white capped, momentous … it was spectacular.
A novel about secrets, hidden things that maybe Ben should have left alone. The characters are all difficult to like, maybe because I couldn’t get a clear picture of some of them in my mind. Ben is really rather pathetic and needy and because of that he is easily manipulated. I read the chilling events at the end of this book with increasing unease and a feeling of desolation. It was both gripping and horrific.