Tobias Hill writes novels that should never be hidden

PUBLISHED: 12:52 12 January 2009 | UPDATED: 15:47 07 September 2010

Drawing from history gleaned from school, Tobias Hill creates a modern parallel with the ancient Greek city, writes Katie Masters I loved Tobias Hill s The Hidden. This novel has gone up on my shelves as one of my special books that must never be throw

Drawing from history gleaned from school, Tobias Hill creates a modern parallel with the ancient Greek city, writes Katie Masters

I loved Tobias Hill's The Hidden. This novel has gone up on my shelves as one of my special books that must never be thrown away/given to a charity shop/loaned to a friend.

Friends, if you want a copy, you'll have to buy your own.

Here's the precis. The central character, Ben Mercer, is in a state of flux.

His marriage has disintegrated, his wife and child are living with another man and, unable to cope with the situation, he's run away to Greece.

A chance meeting with a former acquaintance leads him to an archaeological dig in Laconia - where the old city of Sparta once stood.

The archaeologists have no idea what they'll find when they start to dig - and neither does Ben.

But maybe the things that lie hidden are best left in the dark...

The Hidden is a story about all sorts of things - extremism, relationships, our need to belong. "I wanted to write about an outsider - in a Great Expectations or Lord Of The Flies kind of way," says the 38-year-old, who grew up in Kentish Town.

"I think writers on the whole empathise with those characters anyway because writers tend to be on the sidelines of things, watching. There's a natural affinity.

"But I didn't want someone who was isolated from other people. I wanted someone who was in a group and responding, growing and developing as part of it.

"And I ended up with this group with a sort of toxic secret, which is affecting the psychology of all of them."

It's also a treasure trove of information about the Spartans. That facet of it, alone, is worth the read.

"I've been wanting to write about Sparta for years and years, ever since I studied it at school," says Hill, who studied at Hampstead School and then the sixth form at Camden School for Girls.

"The Athenians felt like predecessors of democracy and I think I expected the Spartans to be the same - moderate and cultured. But they turned out to be frightening. They felt like the predecessors of every form of extremism in the 20th century.

"On the one hand, they exhibited what we'd now see as far right-wing characteristics - eugenic killings of their own children.

"Then at the other, extreme there are these Stalinist social control features - ruling through fear.

"So Sparta's the setting for most of the novel but it also keys in to what the book's about, on one level."

The information on Sparta is presented as short chapters, written up as lecture notes (both Ben and one of the other main characters, Eberhard, met at Oxford). These frame the main story, which is set in modern Greece.

The more you read, the more you see the chilling parallels.

"I really had to think about how to give the reader that information without it being a burden or obstructing the flow of the narrative.

"I wanted people to know what the archaeologists are digging for and what it means."

Hill took five years writing The Hidden, stopping for a year in the middle to produce his fourth poetry collection, Nocturne in Chrome & Sunset Yellow.

The novel's been crafted, polished, cared for - and it shows. It's a wonderful read, from a born writer.

The Hidden is published today by Faber & Faber priced at £12.99.


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