When Ben Mercer arrives in Greece, he’s escaping the flaming ruins of his marriage. He’s a classically trained Cambridge scholar (“Class-Anth,” he says later), but he takes a job at a meat grill in Metamorphosis, a suburb of Athens. There, we get the sense, he would have let himself sink into the routine of work and grease and burns, possibly forever, if he hadn’t run across a former colleague, Eberhard Sauer, who tells him about a dig in Laconia, the modern-day location of ancient Sparta. This news lights up Ben’s mind like those Hollywood spotlights, and despite Eberhard’s clear discouragement, he makes his way to the dig.
There, he finds… well, strata, which is what you find on an archaeological dig, right? He finds the work being carried on by Eberhard, two women (both cool and beautiful, natch), a truculent Georgian, and a nastily talkative Englishman. Ben has always been fascinated by Sparta, the severity of its ethos as well as the lack of its physical remains, and at first the sheer delight of being in ancient Lacedaemonia is enough. But Ben soon realizes that the tight-knit group is holding him at arm’s length for a reason. His desperate need to belong with them mixes uneasily with his slow realization that they are hiding something more than their obvious admiration of the Crypteia, the Spartans’ elite group of killers who hid in the hills and came out at night to assassinate helots in order to instill terror in their subjects. (The Crypteia, of course, means the Hidden.)
Ben himself, of course, is more helot than Spartan. (The Spartans were all warriors; helots did all the other sorts of work, including mercantile work, and Mercer means merchant.) Even after he’s grudgingly accepted into the group, he finds himself at odds with them, seeing them from a distance. Hill does this outsider’s longing of Ben’s very well, his sense that he never quite knows what the right thing is to do or say. The story of the dig is alternated with Ben’s “Notes Toward a Thesis,” which gives some fascinating history of Sparta, and the attentive reader will pick up a number of clues here. Tobias Hill does a lovely job of showing both the glory and the horror of Sparta, in these notes and at the dig itself.
The end of the novel — which was marketed as a thriller — is very tense, but after I put it down I wondered. The main thing that saves this book from outright implausibility, and from its loose ends (what happened to the story line about Ben’s wife and daughter, for instance?) is the writing. This book can be as dark and eerie as something Poe or Baudelaire would have written, if they had been interested in Sparta. (I think actually Sparta was a little less… luxe than they liked, but let it pass, let it pass.) There are little pockets of description that pop up everywhere, letting us see things vividly, like the meat grill in Metamorphosis:
The flare of incendiary fat. The thutter and blurt of meat. The steel pans gilded with oil. The fish as green as celadon, as dull-bright as lead, as pink as grazed flesh. The rare laughter of the Albanians. A gallon jar of cucumbers, broken in the kitchen yard, the pickles shrivelled in the sun like the cadavers of lizards.
When the characters are a bit over-the-top, or when I thought the novel could have been cut by thirty or forty pages, the writing let me give it a little wiggle room. The Hidden, as I said, was marketed as a thriller, and certainly there are parts of it that reach for that genre. But more of it, I think, is trying for something like a psychology of obsession, of domination and belonging. I enjoyed it particularly on that level, and look forward to seeing what else Hill writes.