[Note: Late last year, Rick at Another Book Blog proposed a bookish Secret Santa, and I was lucky enough that Rick drew my name and chose Sea of Hooks for me to read. He also asked the publisher, McPherson & Company, to send me a copy, for which I am truly grateful. Sea of Hooks, in case you missed it, was named one of the top books of 2013 by Publishers Weekly. Here’s my review, which was originally published on Rick’s blog.]
Mr. Hill, a sometime-banker and longtime poet, spent twenty years writing Sea of Hooks, a novel so audacious, so intricately constructed, that it was a reading experience unlike any I’ve ever had. And it completely reinvents the bildungsroman in the process.
As the novel opens, we learn that Christopher Westall’s mother has committed suicide, and that he is in Bhutan with an American group — but we don’t know why. Interspersed with Christopher’s travels in Bhutan as a young man (in his early twenties) are memories of his childhood, which gradually expand until we find ourselves immersed in the narrative of his life.
Deeply imaginative and sensitive, Christopher spends his childhood navigating between the extremes of his parents’ personalities:
It was as if Evelyn’s finding everything to be disturbing brought Westy to the position that nothing was disturbing—a kind of barbell of panic and indifference with Christopher in the middle. (75)
Evelyn is fragile, and Christopher hides his innermost thoughts — the knife people under his bed, the pieces of street detritus that he sees as “messengers”– from her, and Westy with devastating consequences in his early adolescence. Evelyn keeps Christopher home from school for a whole year, quizzes him relentlessly about the finer points of bridge, and collects antiques he’s terrified to break. Westy generally ignores his son as he nurses a perpetual hangover, despite Christopher’s rather hopeless attempts to please him:
THE IRONING BOARD DOOR
Christopher tried to crop himself so that he could be with his father, to be like the pollarded trees lining the band shell seating area in Golden Gate Park. He tried to cut himself back, to be straightforward and unswaying, and he tried to be interested in British cars and business stories and baseball. And Christopher thought that if he could just compress himself a bit more, maybe then he could be with his father. (128)
It sounds rather bleak, but Mr. Hill nonetheless imbues the tale with humor: “Christopher was thin, tousled, intense and disoriented, with a Keatsian frailty, a fine-boned waifishness that was endearing or off-putting depending on how you were with waifishness” (87).
As you can tell from the passages I’ve quoted, the novel is written in a particularly intriguing style: short, titled paragraphs jump from topic to topic, across time and perspectives. None is longer than a page. Images and themes accumulate slowly, relentlessly, like the tide washing up flotsam on a beach. As soon as I finished the novel I wanted to start reading again immediately.
Often these prose-poem paragraphs are achingly lovely, and ring with truth. Here’s one of my favorites:
And Dr. Thorn told Christopher that if you looked carefully you could discern, in the irregularities of people’s lives, the presence of things that must be there outside of view; the influences pulling on them–hungers, expectations, memories, loss—and you could sense a cutting away of the attention toward something hidden, like a cutting of the eyes from what was present, and in that instant of absence a perturbation formed. (180-81)
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
Dr. Thorn asked Christopher if he’d had a favorite children’s book. Christopher said that it was Where the Wild Things Are, except he didn’t know why Max came back. Dr. Thorn said Max came back because he was bored and hungry, and because a person could never be a person by being a wild things, even if they were king of the wild things. “So you have to come back and press forward into the world. This is what you have, what you must make something of—not hiding, not wrecking yourself on the rocks but walking into the world, and this is a sacred act because everything is at risk.” (194)
Isn’t that beautiful? Christopher sees his father hiding and his mother wrecking herself on the rocks, and chooses the third path: to walk into the world, despite its tendency to cause him suffering. His compassion causes him to be intensely sensitive to the world around him — not only to people, but to animals and objects and ideas. His mentor, Dr. Thorn, advises him that sometimes it’s necessary to “stand still in your own discomfort” (216), so that “you will not make a life of trying to transfer itself it onto others” (299). By the age of twelve, Christopher is an expert in this adult maneuver, which, I think, sets him apart from those self-engrossed fictional young men like Holden Caulfield and Stephen Daedalus. They wallow. Christopher transcends.
Another review called Sea of Hooks “a spiritual biography,” and I think that’s right. It’s a novel that proves that the complexities of one young man’s daily life, his preoccupations and his nightmares, and above all, his compassion, can be extraordinarily fascinating, suspenseful, and revelatory.
Tomorrow: An interview with Lindsay Hill, author of Sea of Hooks.