A Book Review by P.T. Butler
It has been a long time since a book kept me up past my bedtime and became an obsession until finished, but that’s exactly what happened with Lindsay Hill’s Sea of Hooks: the 2014 PEN Fiction Winner.
Full of haunting and at times, deeply disturbing, images the novel tells the story of a young man, Christopher, who must grapple with many complexities, including his mother’s mental illness and his father’s alcoholism. Christopher endures something no young teenager should ever have to experience and we share this experience with Christopher and watch as he attempts to survive it. The story moves in and out of the past and Christopher’s journey as a young man to understanding.
“He found how pain flattens you, and thought how much pain the knife-people must be in to be so flat, and he wondered if that was why they had let Mister Must come out: because they needed him to know what makes a person a knife-person – it was pain.”
The above passage is an entire “chapter” in the novel, entitled “Knife-People.” The book is comprised of a collage of these mainly short sections (some only one sentence), with titles such as: Bent-Back-And-Forth Plastic Thing, Fire, Glass, The Dream of the Drowning Child. The titles often repeat to indicate to the reader a continuation in theme or storyline. Hill teaches his reader to begin to watch for the title to show up again, and to know immediately where he will take us.
Much to my surprise, the structure of this book did not wear me out. In a novel, I like to spend time with the characters, the words stretching out the experience and providing depth to the encounter. I expected the truncated “chapters” to annoy me, but they never did. Instead, I was so deeply drawn in to Christopher’s unusuality and his sad circumstances that I just had to know if he would, indeed, survive the traumatic experience. I cared deeply for Christopher.
Which is not to imply that I felt pity for Christopher. Hill doesn’t steep his narrative in sentimentality or remorse for what occurs. What happens in Christopher’s life just is, and that is exactly how it feels when you are a survivor of abuse. To survive, you often distance yourself, not only from those around you, but from yourself and Christopher grapples with his responses. He is cut from a different cloth and what happens to him, affects him in ways it would not affect others. It is all very fascinating: the City of Messengers, the Wonder Ocean, Swinging on the Hook, “between the substantial and the unsubstantial, between single things, fused multitudes and discarded fragments – the hint, the map, the origin and the arc …”
Sea of Hooks is a novel to read again and again, full of treasures and new ways to think about old things.