Forgotten Books: A Hidden Place by Robert Charles Wilson
In the course of a year I usually read twenty or twenty five novels that impress me. Some for characterization, some for story, some for milieu. But I rarely read a novel that astonishes me.
When Robert Charles Wilson's first novel A Hidden Place appeared as a Bantam paperback original in 1986, I wasn't sure what to make of it. I received it along with three or four other science fiction Bantams. I think I put it on the bottom of the stack. The other novels were by writers I knew. Whatever reluctance I felt vanished when I read the first page.
The story here concerns a young man named Travis Fisher who is sent to live with his aunt because his mother, a troubled woman, has died. What he finds in his aunt's house is an intolerable uncle who demands that Travis lives by steely rules he himself frequently breaks. He also finds Anna, the strange beautiful woman who boards upstairs. Travis is so stunned by her he can barely form sentences. He also takes up Nancy Wilcox, a smart, witty girl who is bursting to escape the brutal social order of this small town.
Parallel to this story line is the one of the odd hobo Bone. Because the novel is set in the worst years of the Depression, Bone becomes our tour guide, showing us exactly how people of various kinds behaved during this time. Bone is a transfixing figure, as mysterious as Anna and perhaps linked to her in some way.
I don't want to start listing plot twists here. All I'll say is that each is cleverly set up and magnificently sprung on the reader. What I'd rather talk about is the writing. In the course of reading A Hidden Place, I heard many voices--among them Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner and the Theodore Dreiser who wrote An American Tragedy. The irony is that Wilson is a Canadian. He may or may not have read any of these writers. But except for John Steinbeck, I've never read place description to equal the power and poetry of Wilson's shantytowns or railroad goons; nor have I encountered a better picture of the small towns of that era.
But most of all the book is about people. Wilson's characters will take up permanent residence in your memory. So many of them ache for things they can't have, for things they don't even understand. Wilson writes with a razor.
Twenty years later we find that Robert Charles Wilson is a highly regarded science fiction writer, winner of many awards and several lengthy studies. I believe I've read every novel he's published. But much as I love them I always go back to this one. In its sorrows and its griefs and the beauties of its writing, we find a rare kind of truth, a statement about what it means to be human.