A Review of André Alexis’s The Hidden Keys
Review by Rhonda Dynes
The Hidden Keys, André Alexis’s new novel, was inspired by a reading of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and features a ludic twist on some of the endearing characteristics found in many adventure stories. But this isn’t really a children’s book. In Alexis’s novel we have a loveable rogue, Tancred Palmieri; a damsel in distress, local addict Willow Azarian; wily and dangerous villains, Errol "Nigger" Colby and Sigismund "Freud" Luxemberg; and, of course, the promise of hidden treasure – no spoilers here!
Much awarded, André Alexis is the winner of both a Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Award for his last novel, Fifteen Dogs (2015). His first novel, Childhood (1998), won a best first novel award in Canada and his first published work, a set of short stories called Despair and Other Stories of Ottawa (1994) was short-listed for the Commonwealth Prize.
The Hidden Keys marks the third of a quincunx (think of the five pips on a gamer’s die) and is filled with addicts, albinos and cyber-fortresses – a pastiche of allegorical, metaphorical and "ripped from the headlines" pieces from Toronto’s underworld. Its hero-cum-thief-cum-pirate in this story is the elusive and pensive Tancred Palmieri, a man as wracked by thoughts about love and truth and the meaning of life as any German existential philosopher.
When the thief Tancred encounters Willow at The Green Dolphin – a real bar now long gone in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood – she is dying of hepatitis, so when she asks him to accompany her to her apartment and tells him that she is a multi-millionaire, he humours her. Then, when she asks him to go on a treasure hunt for her – a legacy from her father – he is pushed onto an unexpected path: “A treasure hunt, whatever you might call it, was a whim. So, to his mind, he was doing this for Willow, doing something to bring her peace, a kindness to one who was in need of kindness. He gave his word. He agreed to steal the four other mementos. He agreed to try to work out the significance of each.”
The treasure hunt is deceptively simple if you are an expert thief. Collect or steal the five mementos left to the five Azarian children by their father and decode their messages. At the end, according to Willow, there will be a great treasure. But along the way, like all of the protagonists in Alexis’s series, Tancred must make choices and think deeply at each turn: about goodness and sin, about home, about what it means to be loyal to a pack, about what it means to always question, to go further when it comes to the meaning of what is good and what is really important in life. These themes are echoes from the first two novels in Alexis’s quincunx, Pastoral (2014), and Fifteen Dogs (2015), and The Hidden Keys itself is, sadly, equally as short as the previous offerings. Together, the novels represent a glorious palimpsest of biblical, classical, and Canadian references overwhelming in their psychological intensity and in their brilliance. Alexis is a literary cartographer of the highest calibre and The Hidden Keys should be book-marked on everyone’s map.