Lindsay Hill casts a magician’s spell across his Sea of Hooks (McPherson, 348 pages). On the surface his world is rendered in bright pixels of quivering light, while underneath a seamless narrative undercurrent pulls us into the mysterious depths of experience. For the reader willing to dive under, this journey is unforgettable.
Sea of Hooks is, on the one hand, a fiercely original Bildungsroman set in San Francisco in the 50’s and 60’s. Christopher is an overly imaginative boy, part Holden Caulfield and part Little Lame Prince, who lives in precarious affluence in a darkish Victorian on the edge of Pacific Heights. His delicate, high-strung mother is obsessed with Japanese culture and dead by suicide in the first paragraph. Dad works in finance on the Pacific Stock exchange, until he doesn’t anymore. There are prep schools, bridge games, Dickensian neighbors like the wise and wonderful Dr. Thorn; along with house fires, a very nasty tutor/pederast from Stanford, a trip to Bhutan and encounters with Buddhist monks. Hill’s rich prose makes us feel Christopher is someone we have always known, a boy who lives in a house we have been to, whose eccentric mother we’ve had tea with, whose city we are walking in.
In some interesting ways, this is a novel of San Francisco’s psychic history along with Christopher’s, though never explicitly so. Renderings of the city’s landmarks from the child’s perspective, the glass Conservatory of Flowers, the tall woods of the Presidio, Playland at the Beach and the bleak streets of the Outer Richmond will delight local readers. “They would walk through Chinatown and sit in a curtained booth at the Far East Café on Grant Avenue, and Dr. Thorn would talk to Christopher about the underpinnings of everything.”
At the heart of Christopher’s journey is a longing for wholeness, which proves hard to find. Sexual abuse, the death of his mother, and not least, our hero’s own obsessions, are overwhelming. Things fall apart, shattering (it seems) into the hundreds of short sections of which the story is comprised. Part of the brilliance of Sea of Hooks lies in the way this fragmented structure reflects the mind of the character. It is not simply that his story is told in these short sections but that his entire consciousness is revealed, every facet held up to the light.
This story is driven by a tangible sense of inquiry; what was it that happened, was it this fire, was it that dream, what made me this way? The urgency with which he conducts his investigation is emotionally compelling, as readers we need to find these answers too. This hero’s journey is resolved, (though resolution is a stretch) when he accepts fragmentary answers as the only one ever available to him, or to any of us? Our narrator knows: “He knew that the world was not solid the way it appeared to be; he knew it was broken pieces put together.”
It is hard to say if Sea of Hooks gains its power more through the richness of the many-layered sections, which repeat and reappear in a sort of kaleidoscopic geometry or from the sense we get of this being a seamless narrative that has been cracked open, so that we can look inside the world our character inhabits. Whether we sense the world most fully by its parts, or their sum, is part of the inquiry in progress here.
Each page is rich with incident and insight: on one page we meet a woman who has lost her husband in Korea, have lunch with her daughter at a La Jolla tennis club, and listen in as Christopher tells them of the death of his mother “He said that she died in her sleep, and their voices reminded him of the speaker who came to his bedroom door in the middle of the night when he was twelve, and after a little while of listening he hung up.”
Or this scene (page 323) entitled “Wonder Ocean,” from when Christopher is working at a bank as a young man.
One morning at the bank, while washing his hands in the men’s room sink, he sensed a separating-out from himself, and the ordinary water turned into light where his hands had been, glowed as if laden with phosphorous, as if the fabric of the world had torn and behind it was a field of light holding everything up and seeping into everything from behind — but now it was opened directly — nothing mediating — and all the trade and commerce and margins and profits and balance sheets and cashflows and debits and credits and timelines and settlement dates were embodiments of its underlying order, and people who thought that they were merely going to work to some job to feed themselves and have a little place in the social order were really refractions of the choreographic web-work of the sacred — he stood there stunned, holding the glistening water in his hands.
This section is immediately followed by a scene in Bhutan.
Christopher and Dorji moved forward with renewed vigor, finding a small trail to the left, which they followed in the direction of the barking dog. When the trail soon petered out, they struggled through thickets, vines, clumps of trees and low branches and, after wedging between trunks and boulders, they came to a shallow ravine across which the dog, large and black, stood issuing a guttural growl accompanied by bristling hackles and bared teeth. The animal began to move steadily toward them with increasing ferocity.
Though we move from the men’s room to the trail in the Himalayas, we know that we are somehow on the same track. The water in the men’s room seems to flow onto the trail, the dog’s barred teeth seem to remind us of the light. The sense of moving toward an inevitable revelation connects these passages, and similar connections are made throughout the novel.
There is a paradox that floats through the Sea of Hooks, which is that the experience of reading it is almost the opposite of how it is written. That is to say, while the story is told in its short collage-like segments, their effect is an almost seamless classical narrative. The way sections move from multiple perspectives, dreamtime, real-time, then meld together with such cohesive and penetrating storytelling, is a testament to the author’s insightful eye for detail and character.
Because finally, it is the clarity and beauty of the writing in Sea of Hooks, that we can’t get enough of. Each sentence is finely polished to lyric perfection. Hill, a poet before he was a novelist, is equally attuned to the music of language and the music of the world. He has an innate sense of what is wonderful in the wonders of living; and has here given us an ocean full!
—Barbara Roether, author of This Earth You’ll Come Back To, 2015