Remember reading, as a child, and feeling the fine mesh of words catch you up so completely that you became enjoyably muddled about which was the real world and which the world of the book? For me, it was as though I gulped down the language of the story and grew fat with its cadences — they rang in my ears, colored my vision and pulsed in my throat.
As I got older, I lost some of that easy susceptibility. What had once been a permeable membrane between fiction and life solidified.
If this sounds familiar — not simply the experience but the wistfulness for it — then what a treat to discover The Saskiad, Brian Hall's 1997 novel about a 12-year-old girl growing up on a broken-down, dismal former commune outside Ithaca, N.Y.
Saskia White is drunk on language, which she guzzles, transforms and ladles out again in great improvisational scoops of storytelling. The cow is "the coo," the house is a "ship," boys are "dregs" and America is "Novamundus." White rice is "shiny as cartilage," and old books crack and split to powder "the air with the smell of graham crackers."
Her imaginary companions include Marco Polo, Captain Horatio Hornblower, Odysseus and Tycho Brahe. Her more fleshly companions are her mother — who toils somberly on what remains of the farm and treats Saskia, with woeful misguidance, like a grown-up — and the commune's last few stragglers: a couple of surly, solitary adults and four younger children, whom Saskia refers to as "the crew."
The book is so rife with fanciful coinages and lavish metaphors, it risks becoming precious, but Hall makes us feel that Saskia's investment in wordplay is something close to a means of survival. As we come to realize just how much she is odd and ostracized at her junior high school, burdened with too much responsibility at home, and lonely — oh so lonely: for the idea of her absent father, for a leader, a "Captain to her faithful Lieutenancy," and above all for a friend — we come to see Saskia's linguistic and imaginative feats as nothing short of heroic, a kind of self-rescue.
Leah Hager Cohen is the author The Grief of Others. She is also a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review.
Not that the narrative remains moored in make-believe. The Saskiad offers large-scale adventure, complete with an overseas quest. The day after she turns 13, Saskia embarks on a hiking trip in Scandinavia with her long absent father and her new best friend.
On her travels, she uncovers truths about her past, undergoes a sexual awakening, and learns the sting of betrayal — this novel offers one of the most ecstatic and troubling portraits of a friendship between girls I've ever read.
But the principal journey remains an interior one.
In the end, quite satisfyingly, Saskia's story is about the most ordinary yet crucial things: growing up, finding first love, discovering how strong you are, how flawed you are, and how you can both change and keep constant with your own true self.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Sophie Adelman.