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When queerness forced me to leave home at seventeen I remember what it was like to constantly look over my shoulder. I lived with the fear that my abusive homophobic parents could be following me.
As an adult in a city far away from my abusive family I don’t often find myself reliving those experiences on a visceral level, but page after page Tomas Mournian’s hidden (Kensington) brought me back to those moments and had me looking over my shoulder.
Hidden was terrifying, triggering and without a doubt one of the best novels I’ve read in very long time.
The book is centered on the life of Ahmed a young queer boy whose homophobic parents unable to accept their son’s sexuality incarcerate him in Serenity Ridge a psychiatric hospital charged with ‘curing’ his queerness. We meet Ahmed as he’s just escapes the institution the physical effects of regular sedation and electroshock treatments still fresh on his body.
Over the course of the novel we follow Ahmed as he escapes bounty hunters and becomes one of the lucky, taken into an underground network of safe houses designed to keep queer kids hidden and protected until people stop looking for them, or in mist cases their 18th birthdays when legally they are able to escape their homophobic parents once and for all.
The safe house, a small-overcrowded San Francisco tenderloin apartment where Ahmed is taken, secretly houses a diverse group of queer kids. The youth each and collectively struggle to reconcile their current life on the run with abusive childhoods, religion, and familial expectation with their escape and the ever-present fear of being discovered in a raid. Youth are kept safe by strict nonnegotiable rules about staying away from windows to avoid being seen, never going outside, seldom flushing the toilet to avoid alerting the landlord to their presence, and keeping voices low to avoid raising suspicions of neighbors.
Within the house alliances are formed between some youth, grudges between others, and even a seemingly unlikely romance between Ahmed and another boy in the house. One of the key strengths of hidden is the depth Mournian brought to each character. Too often queer youth are written as one-dimensional characters, but not here. There is an honesty and complexity to the construction of youth seeking sanctuary in the safe house that draws readers in. Mournian also did an exceptional job of framing the interpersonal relationships and struggles between youth in realistic, complicated, and authentic ways including drug use, and sex work without demonizing or sensationalizing the reality of the choices the youth made.
Hidden is riveting and my heart didn’t shop pounding until long after I’d turned the final page. Mournian has written a stunning debut novel. His previous accomplishments have included investigative journalism pieces into the real underground safe houses for LGBT teens who have escaped mental hospitals. While writing for the San Francisco Bay Guardian he wrote ‘Hiding Out’ an investigative piece, which won several awards and inspired a short film. In the included author Q&A Mouenian discloses a personal connection to the topics in hidden and a life on the run saying “There is a big part of me in Ahmed. Like him, I spent years running away, and hiding. My experience was a central reason why I needed to write hidden. I hope young people who need to read hidden will take what’s useful and make good decisions.” Mournian’s connection comes through clearly in his writing and is precisely what to me makes the novel so believable and ultimately frightening.
By Tomas Mournian
9780758251312, Trade paperback
$15.00, 304 pages