Review: The Saskiad by Brian Hall Print

saskiad(San Diego Union-Tribune February 9, 1997)

An Epic for Our Times

What captured my eye no doubt captured yours: That ancient-sounding title with the "-d" suffix, -d for epic. Indeed, the gall of Brian Hall to claim epic status for his novel, a self-promotion few writers would dare. Yet it is not long into this absorbing, protean contemporary story of a 12-year-old girl’s search for her mysteriously absent father, before we realize the claim is justified. Few novels published in a given year have Hall’s magnificent compassion and intellectual daring. Why not say it: This is a masterwork of fiction.

Not only are there reverberations to Homer’s The Odyssey and Melville’s Moby Dick, both sea-faring journeys away from and back to home which Hall evokes geographically and psychologically. But the author also parallels those books for themes of alienation and the importance of home. Much mischief cometh from one little "-d."

The classic hero’s journey is two-pronged: He must undergo a series of calamitous events in order to broaden the known geographic limits of "home" and to reveal to himself his character under duress. Thus Odysseus fights the cyclops and endures Calypso on his way to finding his kingly depth and encompassing the Mediterranean world. Melville’s Ahab, a modern existential epic hero, the dictator of a great whale hunt, brings a sense of moral corruptibility to the American soul, fixing an Armageddon between the psyches of male avarice and nature’s mystery in which such mystery is merely exhausted, not understood.

With Hall’s epic we have large doses of this venturing forth. Set near Ithaca, New York, on a failed commune which has hung on drearily since the 1970s, the heroine Saskia looks beyond home for her father Thomas , who left when she was four and who, strangely, is remembered only in favorable terms. Thomas, like Odysseus and Ahab, has ventured the farthest. Yet Saskia, like Telemachus and Ishmael, is the true seeker, journeying from Ithaca to Norway and back, and returning to her family, the source of her great longing.

Epics, thus, are paradoxical: outwardly focussed but inwardly consequent. They are the root of our novel and story traditions in that individual characters, against the impossible, change, grow, mature. So, to Hall’s credit, Saskia’s search cantilevers the epic story—Saskia’s family, her unknown commune "family," is her primary world while her journey goes through the past, reassembling from the commune’s subconscious protectiveness her paternal history.

Saskia, an avaricious reader of epics herself, is the eldest young one, the most responsible member of the commune. The female-laden home has few men, too many children, and women who would rather not discuss the past, the too-young female founders, the gurus, the promiscuity. Instead, the focus is on surviving today—gardening, living cheaply with few comforts, leaving each other alone to their "personal space."

Saskia’s mother Lauren is a troubling sort, tight-lipped earth fawn, free from rancor and judgment, the goal of communal tolerance. Yet Saskia calls Lauren a "bovine acceptor" because she, like others, says next to nothing about her father. Saskia has only ten postcards and a few faded photos to testify to his existence. And if Lauren does speak it is only to say, "He had to go." A self-proclaimed eco-warrior, he had environmental battles—the good fight—to wage.

Into this mix of dreamy absent father and cold unrevealing mother comes Jane Singh, a beautiful olive-skinned girl, one year older than Saskia, who is barely Saskia’s intellectual equal. The pair accomplish two things: an inseparable friendship, escaping the boyish idiocy of their junior high, and, once invited by the mystery man, an adventure to Norway with Thomas.

There, the three take part in a mountainous trek in which Saskia sees, as she’s been told, only the heroic side of Thomas who tries to rally an aborted protest against a fjord dam project. The two girls succeed in bringing Thomas back to the commune where his return to Lauren causes Saskia to unravel—and act out in a mini epic drama of her own, running away to New York City—her father’s deceptively charismatic identity.

Much of my wonder in this novel was for Saskia’s recollection of her father’s dark loveliness: "Thomas, in Wonderland, leaving the garden with this one or that one, those face-smacking glimpses through the high grass. For so long, for years and years, she didn’t understand. Nakedness meant nothing, everyone was naked then. She thought he was taking the older girls away to hug them, to shower them with approval. Why didn’t he ever take her? Wasn’t she a good girl? . . . He used them according to his pleasure and cast them aside, six at once, like Kubilai Khan. Grass to his scythe."

As we watch Saskia grow over these two years of her emergent girlhood, we see one caught between the deceptions of her parents, in fact, learning deception as a survival tool. While Lauren wants the past to remain so, Saskia wants to bring it into the present by de-mythologizing her father, not as punishment but as truth. We assume that what our children want from us is what we wanted—freedom. Hardly. They want, as Saskia shows us, to know why their parents have not grown up with the values of freedom and openness they demanded and won for themselves in the 1960s. Coincidentally echoing the current Mike Leigh film, Secrets and Lies, the theme here is the last one to know the truth about the past are the people closest to it.