Reviewed by Dessa Bayrock
André Alexis's novels are defined by the sense that the world is held together by fairy tale logic: heroes and villains must fight each other, omens must be trusted, and loyalty must be rewarded. These whimsical worlds are impossible to resist, because no matter how unlikely they seem, Alexis relates them with the reassuring and completely convincing tone of a grandfather sitting in front of a comfortable fireplace. These narratives are whimsical, and wildly entertaining, and entirely beguiling—so beguiling that the reader is tempted to forget there is more to the novel than its whimsy. But, of course, there is always more to the story than its whimsy.
Take, for instance, Alexis’s most recent novel: The Hidden Keys follows Tancred Palmieri, a jewel thief set on unravelling a complex series of clues and keys to claim the prize at the end. On the surface, the novel is no more than tale of a treasure hunt in modern Toronto – but beneath the surface’s gleam and glitter, Alexis builds a complex interrogation of what it means to belong – to a family, to a city, to a community. As Tancred becomes more and more caught up in the treasure hunt, the less he truly seeks the treasure and the more he begins to wonder: what does it mean to hunt something, let alone to find it? What is the cost of obsession?
Tancred is, at first, nothing more than a bystander to the mystery of the hidden keys – a series of puzzles and obstacles faced by the unlikely figure of local, loveable, scatter-brained heroin addict Willow Azarian. Willow and her four siblings have each inherited a mysterious object from their late father, which she is sure will lead a clever investigator to a hidden treasure. Their father was a successful businessman, and each of his children also inherits millions – and yet, despite no real need for the money, the hunt continues to pull at Willow and lend purpose to her days, even as her memory and strength begin to fail her. Tancred promises to help her by stealing each of the clues hoarded by her siblings – a task he remains devoted to even after Willow’s death, in an effort to honour her memory.
Unfortunately for Tancred, he is not the only one Willow confided in; as the search continues, he is forced to weave increasingly complicated circuits around Willow’s siblings, his police detective best friend, and a host of unsavoury characters from Toronto’s underworld who are convinced they deserve a cut of the treasure.
And as each competing party inches closer and closer to the final treasure, Tancred becomes more and more obsessed with the true meaning of the prize. Will the mystery truly reveal a treasure? Or is it, as Willow’s siblings seem to think, merely one last attempt by a loving father to distract his favourite daughter from a dangerous addiction? Each character is driven to unravel the secrets of a dead man – but who is truly worthy of solving the clues and claiming the prize? And what is Tancred willing to sacrifice to find out?
The Hidden Keys can best be described as a romp – a wonderfully unlikely journey through greed, compassion, and loyalty set against the gritty and mundane background of contemporary Toronto. Each of Alexis’s characters becomes a caricature of themselves, wildly vibrant and intensely odd in their passions and obsessions. And yet, as each character becomes more and more unbelievable, and the plot itself leaps joyfully off the rails, there seems to be no simpler, more necessary story: no matter how unlikely, every person is irrefutably connected to the next – and it is these connections which define us.
The Hidden Keys is published by Coach House Books.