My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Loo has adjusted in a life on the move, new apartments, new schools, spending nights in motels with her dad only to pack up a few days later to leave again. It’s been like this her whole life. Hawley tells her to pack her things and off they go. She didn’t mind it when she was younger, she didn’t even think it strange. That was just the way things went. But upon hitting her adolescent years, she is tired of having no friends, of always being the new kid at school.
On her twelfth birthday, Hawley gives Loo her first gun and they practice shooting behind their new and recently appointed permanent residence in Lily’s hometown, Olympus. Loo knows her mother, Lily, has been dead for years and that her father is still mourning the loss. Her father carries his grief along with his scarred body, and the history of his previous life is well hidden beneath his silent exterior. Now, Loo is growing older and wanting answers, and Hawley will soon realise that his past life is coming to hunt him in the present.
Hannah Tinti bravely presents a novel that, if one takes at face value, seems to be utterly ordinary – what with the length of the golden standard of 360 pages or so and a mystery story about a father and a daughter. It is difficult to resist buying Tinti’s second published novel though, even after overcoming the gorgeous cover art, when one reads the synopsis. And what other thought could force its way into my head than, I really need to read this book. When indeed the book arrived in the mail – and I spend an appropriate amount of time marvelling at the beautiful hardcover art put together by The Dial Press – I decided to dive into the story right away.
“I know where we’re going next,” he said.
“Where?” Loo asked.
“Someplace you won’t have to play alone.”
“But I like being alone.”
“I know,” said Hawley. “But you shouldn’t.”
It opens with a rather unfamiliar and quite peculiar – at least for my Eastern European ass – scene, where we stumble upon Loo’s twelfth birthday celebration. She has just received her long-awaited and much appreciated present from her father, her grandfather’s rifle. Not only will this gift be hers, but she is also heading out to her first ever lesson on how to shoot a gun in the woods behind their house. A rather unconventional way to celebrate a twelve-year-old’s birthday but one that allows great insight into the haunting and grief-stricken life of Samuel Hawley. You see, Hawley is still mourning over the loss of his wife Lily, Loo’s mother. The circumstances surrounding her death are unknown and Hawley seems eager to keep things unsaid. Loo has learned to live in apartments where her mother’s ghost resides in the bathroom in the form of old photographs and even half empty hair products that used to be Lili’s. She has learned to not ask a lot of questions because she is not likely to receive a clear answer. And she knows that her father never leaves the house without carrying a gun.
When he was a boy Hawley’s mother had taught him how to handle a gun. Take a breath, she told him, take a breath and let half of it out. She’d said it so often that he nearly always breathed this way, even when he didn’t have a gun in his hands. He took in what he could and he held half of it back and that’s how he kept himself steady, day to day, year to year, every time he squeezed the trigger.
Tinti easily induces a sense that something is wrong, something is going on. Hawley seems to be running from something, his whole life with Loo he seems to be afraid, on the run, but from whom? The first pieces of the puzzle start falling on the board when Hawley decides to offer Loo a permanent home and they move in to Olympus, her mother’s hometown. After a bumpy start an attempt to establish meaningful relationships with other people is made. Loo finds herself making a friend and Hawley even participates at the Greasy Pole Contest, an Olympus tradition whereby he uncovers, by means of removing his shirt, his scarred body. The twelve bullets of Samuel Hawley. The twelve marks that make the history of his life, a constant reminder of his miserable past.
“Don’t start saying you’re sorry,” her father said, “or you’ll be saying it for the rest of your life.”
“I’m still sorry,” she said.
“Don’t,” he said.
The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley‘s timeline carefully treads over Hawley’s past with interrupting – to the story – chapters which offer an insight into the circumstances surrounding each of his twelve bullet scars. With each scar, the reader takes a careful step closer to Hawley’s self and his story, and, even though you wonder if this story is going to break your heart, just as it did with Samuel Hawley, you can’t help but trudge forward, pulling the blankets off of Hawley’s terrible past, arriving, at last, to a crescendo of an ending, gasping for resolution.
She rolled her violet eye at him. “Love isn’t about keeping promises. It’s about knowing someone better than anyone else. I’m the only one who knows him. I’m the only one who ever will.”
What ultimately made this book a story that will resonate with me was the ambience of the narration. As a fan of Claire Fuller‘s prose and story telling I can heartily recommend Hannah Tinti‘s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley to readers who, like me, love the melancholic novels sang in sad progressions of primarily chords in minor. At heart, yes, it is a story about love and the journey of a father trying to do what’s best for his daughter. But who isn’t a sucker for a great father-daughter story?
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