When you’re reviewing books, there are, inevitably, some you’re simply more excited about getting to read than others. Now, that’s not to say I wasn’t interested to read The Hidden Keys—I was. A book about a heroin addict who holds all the clues to a potentially grand treasure hunt is a hard blurb to forget. But I wasn’t itching to read it. At least, not until I started it. Because once I got started, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
It’s been a while since I’ve read a fun book. It’s not my usual thing. But that’s precisely what André Alexis’ newest novel is—a great, easy read written by a witty wordsmith. That said, I’m not quite sure how best to describe it to you. The Hidden Keys is brimming with characters so eccentric and so multifaceted that they almost compete with the story itself for strangeness. And the story is strange.
A crook with a heart of gold—our protagonist, Tancred Palmieri—meets a curious older woman at a bar. She tells him (and, as it happens, more than a few others) a story so peculiar it can’t possibly be true. Except that it is. Or, at least, she tells a version of the truth. Her version—the version of the tale that belonged to Willow Azarian.
As we go on and we meet new people and uncover new pieces of the puzzle, we learn new versions of the story. Or rather, new meanings behind the story. In its simplest version, The Hidden Keys could be wrapped up as: a junkie and a crook go on a treasure hunt. But that would be underselling it. Because what it actually is, is a nuanced mystery drama, complete with some good old-fashioned hijinx.
Featuring a large cast of increasingly curious characters; it’s a credit to Alexis’ writerly talents that he manages to establish the individual importance of each, and their personalities and relationships to Tancred (and/or Willow) quickly, but subtly. While some of the characters do descend, albeit slightly, into bits of tropes; each of them serves a purpose, either in moving the story forward or nailing down motivations.
The book starts out slowly but very surely picks up speed, really hitting its stride around the halfway mark, and while the perspective of the narrative does tend to shift around a lot, I never found it to be especially distracting. Alexis does also have a habit of sneaking hints in, all nonchalant-like and without really drawing any attention to the clue he’s just dropped, and despite the several literary double-takes I took over the course of the read, I actually found this to be quite charming.
The book has five chapters, each of which is divided again into smaller sections. Each chapter features a beautifully illustrated title page—drawings which, we come to realise, play a crucial part in the story. With its hidden keys and uber-bright colours, the cover of the book is lovely. But, when compared to the undeniably more important internal illustrations, that artwork does feel slightly off-kilter.
The Hidden Keys is not a perfect story. And I mean that as a good thing; because if it were perfect, it would be thoroughly boring and not nearly as good as it is. Not every character we meet over the course of the story is likeable. Some characters you’ll love, and others you’ll love to hate. But they’re all interesting. They’re all a reflection of something in us or of someone we know. And there’s a real grounding quality to that which balances out the glitterati of wealth—which, such as it does in life, gives the story an overarching sense of otherworldliness.
The Hidden Keys isn’t anything like you think it’s going to be. It is a classic case of not judging a book by its cover. But it is a good time, a bit of fun, and certainly worth your time.
The Hidden Keys by André Alexis is published by Profile Books. It is available now, online and from bookstores. R.R.P.: $24.99 (hardback).
Thanks to Allen & Unwin for the review copy.