Book Review: The Hidden Keys

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The Hidden Keys

Andre Alexis, 230 pgs, Coach House Books, https://chbooks.com/, $19.95 CND.

The Hidden Keys, the most recent novel by Giller Award winner Andre Alexis is, appears to be the story of a treasure hunt featuring two unlikely friends, at least on the surface. Tancred Palieri is an honourable thief from Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood. After befriending Willow, an aging drug user, she entrusts Tancred with an incredible task. See, Willow is a member of the wealthy Azarian family and is, in all actuality, very rich despite being an addict. When her father passed away, he bequeathed to each of his five children a keepsake. Willow, who shared an affinity for puzzles with her father, believes that each of the treasures is a clue that will lead to a massive fortune. Willow enlists Tancred to help her in this unusual quest shortly before her death. Being a man of honour, he resolves to complete his friend’s last request.

I was immediately wrapped up in Alexis’s depiction of one of Toronto’s grittiest (though rapidly changing, for better or for worse) neighbourhoods, as well as it’s colourful and often shady, old-soul residents and characters. The cast of characters are fully explored and realized humans, the prose was eloquent but simplistic, and the Toronto scenery had me swelling with that hometown pride.

What really got to me about this book was Tancred’s dedication to Willow’s request. The cliché of a thief with a heart of gold is ever present but, with Alexis’s incredible skill as a writer, Tancred’s character is beyond a simple archetype. He appears to steal because he’s good at it, and has a set of morals that keep him in that grey area between what one might call good and bad. While the mystery of the Azarian keepsakes kept me questioning the puzzle and its meaning, it often feels as if Tancred is like a dog chasing a car that he may vary well catch and won’t have any idea what to do with it. What stands true in his quest is his promise to his friend. There is something to that kind of morality that makes that effort worth while, even when there isn’t much to gain.

In the end, The Hidden Keys is a reminder that integrity is worth more than any monetary gain. (Rayna Livingstone-Lang)

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