The premise of The Twelve Lives Of Samuel Hawley is an interesting one: a father with a violent past trying to forge a relationship with a daughter on the brink of womanhood who wants to know just who her father is.
With a stellar premise, and a clever fusion of the dramatic tale of an outlaw and his coming-of-age daughter and a thriller, my expectations were high for Hannah Tinti’s second novel.
(Anyone who has read Tinti’s excellent debut, The Good Thief, published by Dial Press in 2008, would be excited at her new novel, which comes nine long years after her first foray into publishing.)
So it is disappointing that the execution of Tinti’s meditation on paternal bonding does not live up to the hype surrounding the novel.
Samuel Hawley’s life story is told in 12 chapters – each one reflecting a bullet that has lodged itself in the titular protagonist’s body, leaving a scar as a reminder of Samuel’s violent past which is told through flashbacks, and a point of reference for his daughter Louise (referred to as Loo throughout the novel) to find the father behind the outlaw.
The novel opens with Loo at 12 years old, and she and her father settling down in Olympus, Massachusetts, which is where the bulk of the story is set.
Loo makes it clear from the start that it had always been her and Samuel, the two of them moving around the country to keep ahead of law enforcers, shady dealers, and other violent people who have been crossed by Samuel.
Predictably, the constant moving means Loo has no friends. Samuel, we learn, has led a chequered life defined by his gun collection and a body filled with scars from a lifetime of bad decisions, one too many drunken brawls, and numerous brushes with violence.
With the first bullet, readers learn that Olympus is the hometown of Loo’s mother, Lily. Lily died when Loo was two (her demise is recounted in painful detail towards the end of the novel). Lily’s mother, Mabel Ridge, is a bitter woman who has nothing but loathing for Samuel, as she blames him for Lily’s death and for taking Loo away from her.
Upon their return to Olympus, Samuel is faced with resistance from Mabel and several locals who hold a grudge against him, and Loo is bullied by her peers at school. Both face their respective problems by reacting violently. Samuel’s method of helping Loo with the problems she is facing at school, for instance, is to teach her how to shoot. Tinti describes at length the various guns in Samuel’s arsenal and the different types of damage each gun can cause. While it is interesting, this scene could have been more effective if it had been edited down.
Tinti also has Loo become obsessed with wanting to know more about her mother, which results in the girl collecting, in secret, as many of Lily’s personal artefacts as possible and questioning Samuel about his time with Lily and his life in general.
While it is clever to have bullet scars as a source of storytelling, the similarity of incidents in Samuel’s violent past mean that they begin to blend into each other. The only difference between each bullet tale is the location where Samuel got shot. The almost cut-and-paste method to this part of the narrative resulted in this reviewer having difficulty in maintaining an interest in Samuel’s life mid-way through the novel.
As The Twelve Lives is a work of fiction, a certain amount of suspension of believe is expected, of course. However, I was hard pressed to believe that Samuel never needed medical attention after being shot all those numerous times.
The primary issue with The Twelve Lives is that it suffers from a tad too much repetition. As mentioned, Samuel’s past seems to be a carbon copy of one idea repeated 12 times. And his detailed fatherly pep talk about his guns suffers from being too long and also somewhat repetitive. I would have been able to maintain my interest if Samuel’s stories were more succinct and the novel half its length.
While it may not be atrociously unreadable, The Twelve Lives Of Samuel Hawley could have benefitted from Tinti learning to edit her work.
The Twelve Lives Of Samuel Hawley
Author: Hannah Tinti
Publisher: The Dial Press, fiction