Faber & Faber £12.99 (354pp) £11.69 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

The Hidden, By Tobias Hill

There is even a name for those obsessed by the Spartans: Laconophiles. Sparta has always gripped popular imagination, from the writings of the fifth-century BC Thucydides to Zack Snyder's film, 300. Yet material evidence for what we think we know – a highly ordered, martial society; subjugation of the serf-like helots; exposure of infants; heroic death at Thermopylae – is insubstantial, and Sparta's collapse rich territory for speculation. Tobias Hill's previous novels have dealt with the fantasies, dangers and surprises of exploring the unknown. Archaeology and a search for the elusive Spartans is a perfect topic for him.

In The Hidden, Ben Mercer, a lonely and unsettled young academic, arrives in mountainous southern Greece where a multinational archaeological team is excavating the site of Sparta. Mercer finds himself excluded by the close and hostile group already at work. As the team unearths skeletons, pottery and horror, it becomes clear that history is not just in the ground, but that every character, every act and decision conceals its own history in a tale of tribal belonging, memory and revenge. The secret they are hiding and the lengths to which Ben might go to be accepted by them will inevitably draw comparisons, unfairly, with Donna Tartt's The Secret History.

The Hidden is above all a superb portrait of modern Greece. As he moves between Athens and the Peloponnese, Hill's brilliance lies in capturing the contradictions of a country he knows well. It is not a place of sunny islands, genial taverna owners and affable chaos. Hill's Greeks are tough, loyal and perceptive but also wary, secretive, vengeful and opportunistic. His novel confronts the beauty and brutality of a country which has its roots in antiquity and its face turned to the Balkans.

Chapters set in contemporary Greece are interspersed with a vivid account of the Spartans. Glorification of violence lies at the heart of Greece's distant past; political instability and atrocity have punctuated its recent history and, as an inadvertent background to current urban unrest, Hill's description of a disconsolate winter Athens, dripping with rain, anger and hopelessness, is as good as it gets.

Hill is an accomplished poet as well as novelist and it is the balance between the two that raises a problem. In many ways the book is a fine extended meditation on loss and place rather than a conventional mystery. Indeed, the depiction of urban Greece has close resonances with poems such as his "London Pastoral". But the powerful imagery tends to overwhelm characterisation. The languorous first two thirds, where the hard Greek winter slowly turns towards the warmth of spring, is wonderfully observed but, much of the time, the central characters on this magnificent stage are overwhelmed by the scenery.

The unfaithful wife who drove Mercer to Greece and catastrophe is unconvincing, her Oxford lover repellent, surely even to her? The members of the group are all so unlikeable that Mercer's desperation to be accepted is baffling, yet this longing is as essential to the plot as is his wife's rejection.

Nor is there any plausible explanation for how this cabal came together and the motive for the concluding eruption of shocking violence is introduced abruptly and rather late. But it is hard to believe that even the author is keen on his modern cast; the figures who really come to life in Hill's breathtaking landscape are the ghostly Spartans who claim it as their own.

Elizabeth Speller's memoir 'The Sunlight on the Garden' is published by Granta

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