Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Hidden, (Harper Perennial), by Tobias Hill

The identity of “the Hidden” is at the heart of the mystery that unfolds in British author Tobias Hill’s fourth novel. The narrative follows Ben Mercer, an experienced “shovelmonkey” on various archaeological digs, who joins a group searching for the ruins of the long-lost city of Sparta. After going through a painful divorce, he finds the remote Greek countryside a welcome change of scenery—except that one of the members of the expedition, Eberhard Sauer, is a close acquaintance of his ex-wife.

They manage to get on well enough, and as time goes on, Ben finds himself getting romantically involved with one of the expedition members, a young Japanese woman named Natusko. Despite the fact that, by all appearances, he has been fully accepted as a member of the group, he occasionally hears whispers of some dark secret the others collectively keep. Even Natsuko refuses to give him a clue. Eventually, after undergoing what he believes to be a series of tests to prove him worthy, Ben faces the challenge of learning what the others have been keeping from him—knowing that, once he experiences it, his life will never be the same.

Interspersed with the story are passages that recount the history of Sparta, which ostensibly weave a backdrop for the present-day drama. These historical vignettes may, in fact, be the most intriguing and compelling aspects of the book. While Hill’s prose is lyrical and engaging, with vivid descriptions and rich atmosphere (although I find the usage of em dashes, rather than quotation marks, to denote dialogue a tedious affectation), narrative development is mired in verbal quicksand. Now, I do enjoy novels that focus on characterization and setting and that unfold gradually; as a recent example of these characteristics, I might point to The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova. In fact, The Historian’s plodding pace rates highly as a subject of criticism.

Dare I say it, compared to The Hidden, The Historian is a screaming NASCAR race.

To better appreciate The Hidden, one may consider the novel less a literary drama than a biography of its main character. For example, the novel opens in England, with Ben Mercer working in a diner. The author introduces a number of characters and devotes significant time and effort developing the place and the people—none of which (apart from Eberhard Sauer) are ever revisited or even made relevant. The section is too long and detailed simply to serve as an introduction to Sauer; one must take it as a chapter of Mercer’s life that the author considers important.

And viewing the novel as a biographical portrait, one can see this as being one of Mercer’s pivotal life decisions; yet, for the sake of the drama, the entire back story could have been presented in briefer manner, and with considerably more impact. At the resolution, for all the novel’s atmosphere, rich historical detail, and living characters, the reader receives very little reward in the drama department.

While I admire the author’s elegant prose, I would have a hard time recommending The Hidden to any but the most patient readers—whose fondness for elegant prose supersedes a desire for well-rounded drama.

Visit Buy it today.

Stephen Mark Rainey is the author of the novels Dark Shadows: Dreams of the Dark (with Elizabeth Massie, HarperCollins, 1999), Balak (Wildside Books, 2000), The Lebo Coven (Thomson Gale/Five Star Books, 2004), The Nightmare Frontier (Sarob Press, 2006, and in e-book format by Crossroads Press, 2010), and Blue Devil Island (Thomson Gale/Five Star Books, 2007); three short story collections; and over 80 published works of short fiction. Stephen lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with a passle of Damned housecats, and over the past year have become an avid Damned geocacher. For updates on what's happening currently, visit The Blog Where Horror Dwells and/or the News page.

No comments: