The opening line sets the tone for The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti: “When Loo was twelve years old, her father taught her how to shoot a gun.” The scene following sets up a lot of the critical threads that emerge throughout the novel: the guns, the relationship between Loo and her father, the absence of Loo’s mother, and the fact that her mother also knew how to shoot. There are a lot of guns in this book. And a lot of watches. Themes of violence and the inevitability of time, anyone? I got hooked on the first line, but to be honest, it’s a bit of a slow start after that. There is a steady interest built up throughout, alternating the perspective of Loo in the present, and scenes from the past of Hawley, her father. The scenes from the past of Hawley are titled “Bullet Number One,” “Bullet Number Two,” etc. and it soon becomes apparent that the twelve lives referred to are twelve times Hawley took a bullet and didn’t die.
The quiet setting of a seaside town where Loo settles with her father contrasts with the chaotic and vagrant life he lives prior to her existence. This is the same town where her grandmother still lives. A grandmother who is convinced that Hawley killed her daughter, Loo’s mom. I enjoyed the alteration of perspectives. Hawley’s past, from his beginning as a teenaged petty crook, through to how he met Loo’s mother, and the various jobs he did in between, catching bullets and catching fatherhood in the middle. The scenes with Loo growing up, going to school in the town, meeting (and fighting) people, indulging in a bit of teenaged rebellion, were less interesting to me, but served to hold the story together as it built up questions, until we are wondering with Loo just what exactly did happen to her mother.
I appreciate the building of the characters—although Loo does not start off sterling, she realistically grows up throughout the novel, noticeably changed when she is sixteen from how she started as a snotty pre-teen. Even Hawley, his brushes with death starting off so early in his life, displays a realistic alteration as he matures throughout his life, to the point he is at in the present from Loo’s perspective. But the important things stay the same—Loo’s tenacity and strength, Hawley’s basic decency and unpretending pragmatism. Both of their journeys wheel under a constellation of fiery love, blood, and crime. The trail of bullets shot like a comet to the final, deadly conflict as Hawley’s past catches up with him and his wife rises from her watery grave to have a hand in the reckoning.
I have to be honest, those last few sentences are very “writerly” and pretentious. But that is kind of how this novel is. It is definitely literary fiction, and there are times when the writing seems a bit self-conscious of that fact: meaningful metaphors abound, profound realisations or “epiphanies” are a little bit too common. I enjoyed it, though, and it reminded me a little bit of Tinti’s other novel, The Good Thief, with its themes of fatherhood, love, guilt, and crime. This is a longer, much more ambitious novel with a more complex and fleshed out exploration of these two lives, how they have been shaped, and how they are shaping themselves. It’s a rewarding read with an intense resolution if you stick with it through the beginning.