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Originally published Friday, November 29, 2013 at 5:04 AM

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‘Sea of Hooks’: Navigating the past’s dark waters

Lindsay Hill’s novel “Sea of Hooks” tells the story of a young man, an only child, struggling to come to terms with the suicide of his mother and points of darkness in his past. Hill reads Thursday, Dec. 5, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Lindsay Hill

The author of “Sea of Hooks” will appear at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 6, at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or

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Poets see the world in a different way from the rest of us, and “Sea of Hooks” (McPherson & Co., 352 pp., $25) shows that, at least in the case of poet Lindsay Hill, they see novels differently, too. The first work of fiction from Hill (who lives in Portland and has published six volumes of poetry), “Sea of Hooks” could be described as a coming-of-age novel — but that would do an injustice to its unique form, and to the challenging yet invigorating experience of reading it.

“Sea of Hooks” begins with a poem (one that plays with the image of the title phrase), then launches into its story with a structure that never varies: a series of single paragraphs (some just one sentence, others a page long or more), each with a title, that may or may not be chronologically connected to the paragraph that came before. It’s almost a pointillist approach to literature: a series of not-quite-random dots, vivid and bright, that gradually form a darkly shimmering picture.

At the heart of the story is Christopher Westall, an only child growing up in San Francisco. We begin with the suicide of his mother, Evelyn, when Christopher was a young adult; then, through circles and circles, we make our way back to Christopher’s childhood, forward to his present-day journey to Bhutan to try to answer questions about his past, and back again. It’s not always easy to know exactly where we are in the story, but that’s part of the pleasure of reading it: Hill has given us a path to follow, but not always a torch to light our way.

A sensitive child, Christopher struggles to understand his troubled mother — “a person without firewalls, [so] any spark ignited the entire world for her.” In a moving passage, he realizes that he loves her — that “they shared something beyond the flat cardboard enactments of routine — something that glistened at its edges — and he saw that they belonged to each other the way that diagonals do.”

But he can’t confide to her, or to his distant father, about his life: his sexual abuse at the hands of a man hired to be his tutor (told in phrases so heartbreaking you may need to put the book down), his troubles in school, his dreams and obsessions and questions. Another man, a kind neighbor, proves a safe haven for Christopher and provides his hesitant thoughts with some answers — but he, like everything in Christopher’s fractured life, proves fleeting.

The book jacket tells us that Hill spent nearly 20 years writing “Sea of Hooks,” and it shows; every paragraph seems to glimmer with a phrase that reminds us why we read literature. Christopher, pressing his tongue to a hailstone, finds that it tastes like “icy smoke”; as a small child, he collected forgotten bits of paper and debris, calling them “messengers” and keeping them in his pockets “until he understood what they were saying.” And then, one day, he didn’t pick the messengers up anymore.

“It wasn’t that he’d come to see there was no city, or that everything didn’t belong to everything else or that the messengers were not parts of people’s lives that they’d thrown away ... It was very matter-of-fact, like clothes that don’t fit anymore or walking home a different way from school.” Dipping in and out of poetry like toes flirting with a blue lake’s water, “Sea of Hooks” isn’t an easy read, but it’s often mesmerizing.

Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.

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