“Fragmented” is not typically a positive descriptor for novels. It would imply a story that isn’t organic or is cobbled together or half-baked. Lindsey Hill’s first novel, “Sea of Hooks,” is fragmented, but that fragmentation is intentional, well executed and central to the book’s success.
“Sea of Hooks” brings us Christopher Westall, beginning with his early childhood in San Francisco in the 1960s. We know he’s a sensitive, if somewhat peculiar, child. We know his mother, Evelyn, has disturbing theories and paranoias that she imparts to her young son. “Evelyn had a theory of brokenness that a broken thing encouraged other things to break, that breaking was like fire because its nature was to spread.”
Christopher thinks of his mother as a “glass mother.” She doesn’t allow broken things in her home and gives strange advice around smiling. She advises him to sustain his smile “longer than is required by simple courtesy,” after the person who has made the comment has turned away, so that his smile will not be seen as insincere.
“Christopher was a bit confused by this. ‘What if no one is watching?’ Evelyn responded sharply; ‘Someone is always watching. Yes, they will watch to see if your smile fades too soon, so you must keep smiling beyond when they would likely stop looking so that others, too, will notice how often other people’s smiles are cut short as soon as the person who made the comment turns away and then you know that their smiles to you are the same, shallow and condescending.’”
Hill’s novel does not have chapters, but instead multiple divisions, ranging from one sentence to several pages, with titles such as “Theory of Brokenness,” “Glass Mother” and “Sustaining the Smile.” Initially this approach can be somewhat distracting, and yes, disjointed. Following a cohesive storyline is only possible in a more vague sense, and you need to read about a third of the way in before the overall story arc makes itself clear. An acceptance of ambiguity is required here: Hill is a poet with six collections to his name, and this novel is in many ways a long, narrative poem of sorts.
Interspersed with descriptions of his mother’s theories are the strange things he tells his classmates: “When Christopher was in the second grade he told a first grader that his parents had taken him to the country and that all his fingers had been chopped off by some farm equipment and they had been replaced by a very special doctor with plastic ones.” His father’s war stories, are a huge tonal change from the lyrical style of Christopher’s thoughts, and there are sections that describe a journey Christopher takes to Bhutan as a young adult.
Essentially, Hill’s novel deals with the big ideas of what it means to be alive, to suffer, to be mortally afraid and to overcome these sufferings and fears. It is not what happens to Christopher but the way he processes these events that creates the content of this story.
After being sexually abused by a tutor, Christopher invents a character named Mister Must: “One night the knife-people slit the strings on a gunnysack and something sticky and predatory uncoiled and came out. It closed all the windows and closed all the doors, pulled down the shades, pulled the curtains closed, filled all the spaces between cups in the cupboards and books on the bookshelves.”
And the knife-people, there long before Mister Must: “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.”
This is the kind of book you have to look up from at intervals just to absorb what’s being conveyed. I find the best stories force me to do this. Conversely, it’s not a page-turner. There are long stretches of text that can be difficult to place, even when accepting a nontraditional narrative structure, and the dysfunctional nature of Christopher’s family life and thoughts can be overwhelming. If this doesn’t dissuade you, and the quotes in this review seem intriguing, you’ll most likely savor and enjoy the poetry of “Sea of Hooks.”