“Maybe it’s true,” he said slowly, “what Aunt Liza believes about Anna. She’s not human. For the first time he looked at her. “You understand that?”
Title: A Hidden Place
Author: Robert Charles Wilson
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
For my latest excursion into the works of one of my favorite authors, I went all the way to the beginning to take a look at Wilson’s very first novel, A Hidden Place. And what did I find? Well, a fine book, which was no surprise. Although this one largely lacks the boldness of premise that Wilson exhibits in his later novels, this is nevertheless a solid and satisfying piece of work. And although Wilson only gets stronger over time, his characteristic strengths are all evident here at the start of his career: the convincing depth of his characters, the vibrancy and genuineness of his settings, and his keen insights into life and human experience.
In the 1930’s, young Travis is taken in by his aunt and uncle after his mother’s death; and given her scandalous lifestyle (she was a “working girl”), he finds himself an outcast in a small prudish town of conventional folks. He soon connects with Nancy, a girl his own age who is also an outcast, a starry-eyed dreamer who longs to escape the confining limits of dreary small town life. And these two soon find their lives entwined with that of yet a third sort of outcast, for Travis’ aunt and uncle have a boarder living in their attic, an indescribably strange girl named Anna who has very bizarre effects on people. Travis is drawn to her for reasons he can’t understand. There are secret midnight meetings between her and Uncle Creath. And there are hushed rumors about her all over town. No one seems to know who — or even what — she really is.
Interspersed with these events are scenes of a traveling Hobo named Bone, a peculiar giant riding rail cars around the country and struggling to survive. Bone is also something of a mystery to those around him, and some try to take advantage of his apparent simple-mindedness. Bone feels a constant tug pulling him to some faraway place. He doesn’t know what it means, but as it gets stronger and stronger, he has no choice but to follow it wherever it leads — which happens to be a certain small town already mentioned.
This is an attractive novel because of its many different facets: the mysterious nature of Anna and Bone (which I won’t spoil for you); the anxiety and quiet desperation of Depression-era America; the social intrigues of an insular small town; the difficulties faced by those who don’t fit into the prevalent social order; and the tendency to see in others what we want to see, in effect making other people a mirror of our own deepest needs or expectations. Wilson handles all these with skill, and braids them together into a whole that resonates with the reader.
And speaking of resonating, one of the things I love about Wilson’s writing is the way he slips in little bits of insight and truth about life. I think I say that in every Wilson review I do, but how could anyone fail to identify with a passage like this:
[...] he felt, too keenly, the narrowing of life itself. You start out, Creath thought, you are a river in full flood; but life meets you with its dams and deadfalls and all its interminable and arid places. You lose speed, depth, urgency, desire. You become a trickle in a desert.
So yeah….. get the book, read the book, enjoy the book. You just cannot go wrong with Robert Charles Wilson.