Having fled his hometown, school and his spectacularly failed marriage, Ben Mercer has retreated to the tiny town of of Metamorphosis, Greece, where he whiles away the hours living simply as a grill worker in a meat shop and working on his thesis on the peculiarities of ancient Sparta and the customs and psychology of ancient Greeks. Metamorphosis is literally in the middle of nowhere, so Ben is surprised one day by the appearance of Eberhardt, an old classmate from university, who tells him that he is working on an archaeological dig in Sparta. Eberhardt then disappears before Ben can chat with him further and without saying goodbye.
Intrigued, Ben makes a few inquiries and gets himself assigned to the same dig in Sparta, as much to figure out why Eberhardt was so cagey as to further escape the dismal possibilities of his current situation. Ben isn’t welcomed when he gets there. Eberhardt remains aloof and the other archaeologists to whom he seems closely bound show Ben even less interest, which is what make them so interesting to Ben, that and the fact that they seem to have ulterior moves and share a dark secret.
When I initially began reading The Hidden, I enjoyed it very much and was (as I remain) impressed with the beauty and expressiveness of Hill’s prose. I was immediately drawn in to what seemed to me the story of a man who is trying to come to terms with the reprehensible behavior that ruined his marriage, separating him from the wife and child whom he loved deeply. His writing on his thesis, conversations with co-workers on modern Greek culture, and the ruminations which exposed the failings of his marriage were not the gripping mystery that had been promised in the jacket copy, but was a story in which I was deeply interested.
The episode, eventually uncovered, that led to the destruction of Ben’s marriage was unique and one that I would have liked to have seen explored in more detail. If I was reading uneasily it was because the book was supposed to be a thriller, and more than one hundred and fifty pages in I had seen neither hide nor hair of one, and thought that the novel, to its disservice, had been poorly marketed.
Firmly into the second half, though, the novel begins to go astray. Several players are introduced at once and the conversations they have are a jumbled mess of long sentences, where no page breaks or quotation marks make it exceedingly hard to figure out who has said what. The story that had been building throughout the first half of the novel all but completely disappears, and I felt as if I had been dropped into a completely different book, with characters who were alien and a little flat. The mystery, which might have had legs if integrated into the story earlier, was anti-climactic by the time it made it’s way into the last seventy-five pages of the novel.
Hill is a talented writer and I loved one of the stories that he was trying to tell. The thesis portion of the novel was interesting but ultimately seemed unconnected to the book, while the last section fragmented what he had been building. There was simply too much going on, but not enough to tie it all together and make it compelling. Contributing to this was the fact the book description totally mismanaged my expectations. I’m definitely curious to see what Hill might write next, but would proceed with extreme caution.