But perhaps none have done so in quite so mesmerizing a manner as Hannah Tinti in her new novel “The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley” (The Dial Press, $27), the story of a young girl growing up in a small Massachusetts fishing town with a father whose stoic eccentricities of the present mask a shadowy and brutal past.
Loo (short for Louise) has just turned 12. She has spent most of her life as a nomad, moving from place to place along with her haunted, hunted father. She has no memories of her mother, who died when Loo was just a baby; all she’s got are the artifacts that her father sets up almost as a shrine in every home they occupy.
That changes when her father Samuel Hawley buys a house in the small town of Olympus. For the first time, Loo is allowed to settle into a place – a place that just happens to be the town in which her mother Lily grew up.
And so too does Loo grow up. All the while, her father continues to be an enigma to those around him. He’s a loner whose massive collection of guns and constant vigilance hint at a life spent in the grey area between right and wrong (or at the very least, legal and illegal). His body sports scars from a dozen bullet wounds; 12 markers of painful memories.
As Loo gets older, she finds herself wondering more and more about her mother. She tries to uncover the full truth that her reticent father seems reluctant to give her. And as the mystery deepens, so does the danger; she’s left wondering just how well she knows the man who has given his life to raise her.
“The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley” is laid out in alternating chapters. Half the time, we’re watching Loo as she makes her way toward adulthood, dealing with difficulties both typical and not-so-much. The other half, however, is something very different – it’s the story of Samuel Hawley’s scars. Essentially, we get a blow-by-blow of Hawley’s criminal past, one that saw him move from small-time crime into the big time … and the subsequent consequences when things went awry.
Samuel Hawley’s story is undeniably compelling, a modern version of the 12 Labors of Hercules from Greek myth. From the recklessness of his youth to his well-meaning efforts to escape the bonds of his past indiscretions, each of the 12 offers us a deeper, more thorough look at the psyche of a man who, having lost the love of his life, chooses to devote his particular set of skills toward raising his daughter as best he can, all while silently, stoically aching for the wife that he lost.
But it is Loo’s journey that sets this story to soaring. The idea of this young girl, trapped in the net of her father’s past through no fault of her own, trying to find her place in a world that views both her and her father as outsiders. She’s smart and engaging while also offering brief moments where it becomes clear that she is very much her father’s daughter. Her struggles to fit are only exacerbated by the life she has led, but through it all, there’s an indefatigable spirit that rings true in even the most extreme circumstances.
Tinti has created something unique here, a combination of coming of age story, thriller and familial drama that shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does. That’s a credit to her talents; she spins this complex and ever-shifting narrative with an easy clarity, letting the moments she creates – and the juxtaposition between the two tales she’s telling – unfold at precisely the right speed.
“The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley” is a masterful piece of storytelling, creating a wonderful balance between the sins of the past and the truths of the present. There’s a sophisticated emotional rawness binding it all together that will resonate long after the final page is turned. Smart, haunting and dynamic, it makes for a fantastic read.