Fiona Snyckers exposes new-age terror, fear and misogyny in 'The Hidden'

With a horrifying cult mass killing thrown in the mix — it’s a perfect 'how well do you know your neighbour' type of read

21 May 2024 - 11:37
By Sonja van der Westhuizen
Neither domestic noir, nor an FBI thriller, 'The Hidden' is a study of family dynamics and secrets in relation to societal influences.
Image: Supplied Neither domestic noir, nor an FBI thriller, 'The Hidden' is a study of family dynamics and secrets in relation to societal influences.

The Hidden
Fiona Snyckers
Pan Macmillan SA

In crime fiction, the solving of the crime usually takes centre stage — but South African author Fiona Snyckers does things differently with The Hidden.

The book revolves around three diverse women, and the mystery that will keep readers guessing is how the stories of these women will eventually converge. The crime doesn’t have to be solved; we know who the perpetrators are from the start and all the police must do is find the criminals before more harm is caused.

First up is Monterey-based cartoonist Becca Abrahamson, with a family that includes architect husband Michael and her children Rachel, Felix and Petey, who is severely disabled. Theirs is a happy family. Becca and Michael still act like teenagers who can’t keep their hands off each other — much to their children’s embarrassment.

One morning, news of a terrorist attack flashes across their television screen, disrupting their peaceful, suburban existence. Right-wing survivalists known as the Patriot Fathers have attacked a business park in Anderson, Oregon. Hundreds of people have been killed in what is regarded as the worst incident to occur on American soil since 9/11. Becca and Michael have a history with the Patriot Fathers and it’s only a matter of time before the past knocks on their door.

Jumping back to an unspecified time, we find ourselves in the unsettling world of a patriarchal survivalist cult holed up in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Rebekkah is the mother of a four-year-old son and has recently given birth to a girl. Without Rebekkah's permission, the infant daughter is sent away because she is seen as an unnecessary burden. This is just one of the many injustices Rebekkah must endure. She is also one of the cult leader's many wives, whose sole purpose is providing male heirs to ensure a future generation of soldiers.

Aalia Knox is the special agent tasked with looking into the terror attack. She's the stereotypical abrasive, authority-challenging cop with a drinking problem we know so well. It’s what we would expect from a male character. Fortunately, these characteristics are allocated to a female police officer, which is less common.

Aalia and her team are under pressure to find the cult and protect the world from further danger. However, the five perpetrators committed suicide when police entered the occupied building, so questioning them wasn't an option. When the FBI discovers a link between the Abrahamson family and the terrorist organisation, it becomes their only lead.

Aalia’s portrayal contains an unexpected contradiction. The author is undoubtedly concerned with women's roles and rights in society, but her depiction of Aalia places a strong emphasis on her appearance, something reminiscent of the male gaze. Most likely this is intentional, but it is also noticeable. Her character leaves us wanting to learn more about her background. We know she identifies as black but looks ethnically ambiguous and was previously married. Her risky sexual behaviour and drinking frequently impair her judgement on the job, but she does have a high success rate in solving cases. It feels as if Aalia should be the novel's main character, but the family's narrative dominates.

Becca and her husband are tough to relate to, even though much of the story revolves around the intricate details of their daily lives — and their secrets. It's difficult to sympathise with their predicament, even as the FBI exposes them as former cult members and their neighbours label them as white supremacists — the “Neighbourhood Nazis”. 

Snyckers has said that the themes in The Hidden were inspired by her personal concerns about the growing threat posed by right-wing organisations. She does a good job of capturing this fear, and the misogyny of the extremist group depicted here is horrifying and deeply unsettling. It makes clear the view that external forces aren't the real danger America faces, either in the book or in real life.

The Hidden's setting and themes are familiar, despite its newly-imagined post-Trump world with a female president. The war on terror, the FBI, a right-wing militia — these are the reasons Snyckers chose America in which to base her story, rather than her native SA. It would have been interesting to see what she would have created with a South African setting, as there is plenty material to incorporate in a socially relevant novel. Unfortunately, for the time being, this is not on the cards since she is working on a follow-up, which will most likely also be set in America.

The Hidden is difficult to categorise. It's not domestic noir, a police procedural or an FBI thriller. Instead it's a study of family dynamics and secrets in relation to societal influences. It is, in a sense, very Snyckers-like. She has a history of flitting between literary fiction, young adult, romance and social satire, and here she combines elements from other genres to create a unique and entertaining read.