This book is not a thriller, despite what the back cover says. It goes much deeper than that. Traditional suspense or thriller novels move at a fast pace and have clearly identified bad guys and good guys. The characters may be rather flat, although there is enough detail about the good guys to keep you interested in their fates. This book moves slowly, and the main character is a three-dimensional, well-formed person. He's probably someone you've come in contact with, although you might not call him a friend exactly. You probably feel like you don't know him all that well, though you like him. He's not really the kind of person you'd hang out with, but he seems nice enough.
Ben Mercer is that guy in the book. He's young--only twenty-five--but he already has an ex-wife and a little daughter. His ex has basically moved in with one of his professors, so he can't even find respite in his academic life. In fact, the reason he is in Greece is because he wanted to get away from England for a while and process the divorce and other changes. For a few weeks Ben works in the kitchen at a bar, but a colleague from Oxford happens to stop in one night and in the course of conversation, Ben finds himself discussing a job with an archaeological dig in the region once known as Sparta.
Upon arriving at the dig--soaked to the skin after an extremely long walk in the rain because his promised ride never came--Ben quickly realizes that there is something going on with some members of the dig, including his colleague. He feels like he's been dropped into a game already in progress with no idea of the teams or of the rules. In the end, Ben must decide how far he will go to be a full member of the group. He must decide if he truly even wants membership in the first place.
The dig itself is only a shallow layer of what is really going on with Ben's new coworkers. It's kind of a cover for their true activities. Ben wants them to trust him enough to tell him what they're up to, but at the same time, he never feels quite part of their group. The book itself is full of layers, with characters hiding things from each other and possibly from themselves. There are levels of guilt, greed, acceptance, friendship, loneliness, courage, belief, and love.
Interspersed among the chapters detailing Ben's activities are what the author calls "Notes Towards a Thesis." The thesis is Ben's, and he works at it with varying degrees of interest. By the end of the book, his notes are more like diary entries concerning the dig; his focus has shifted away from the past towards his present. You'll get a lot of Spartan history in these notes, which help explain some of the finds at the dig. You'll also get some Greek history, which color the extracurricular events Ben stumbles upon during the group's nights off. It's all interesting, and it presents another layer in life: how much does the past inform the present and how do present decisions affect the future?
Read this book if you have several days to digest it. Even when you have to close the covers for a while, you'll be thinking about it and about Ben until you have a chance to open it again. You'll get inside Ben's head though maybe not his heart. You'll feel his loneliness and his longing to be accepted, but there is still a layer of him that you won't quite see even at the end, because he only begins to see it himself.