I remember hearing a saying all the time that girls were closer to their fathers and boys were closer to their mothers. I’m not sure where the saying came from, but whether it was an old wive’s tale or it could be attributed to something Freudian, I’ve always been one of those daughters who is closer to their father, a niche which has been stifled in my reading history.
Many of the books I’ve read that feature families in them either have a father who is absent, a father who is placid, or one who is abusive. Thankfully, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti sidesteps any misgivings I may have had previously. While I went into this book gingerly, half expecting a Faulkner-esque father figure who stepped out of the pages of As I Lay Dying, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Hawley and his daughter, Loo, were able to be interesting without being simultaneously unpleasant.
In The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, we follow Hawley and Loo through their new life in Olympus, Massachusetts. They’ve been moving from place to place for most of their lives, with Hawley both quietly competent and reticent about his past. We learn early on that Loo’s mother had died when she was younger and that Hawley, still grieving over her no matter how much time passes, creates shrines to her in the bathroom of every place that they move to. They live happily enough, but throughout the novel, you see them go through the trials of growing up different, of living in a place that expects you to fit in, and learning how to let themselves relax after a lifetime of moving.
In time, both the reader and Loo begin to unravel the mystery of Hawley, a man so mysterious that even his daughter knows next to nothing about his past.
A thriller that is both beautiful and bittersweet, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, manages to walk that line of having characters who aren’t paragons of virtue without cheapening them or making them unredeemable. The past is a heavy weight on Hawley’s shoulders and his past deeds have left him a modern Lady Macbeth, unable to wash the blood from his hands no matter how much he tries to correct his mistakes. But one thing Hawley never becomes is reprehensible. In the end, what Hannah Tinti does so well is keep Hawley complicated. Whether it’s his relationships with his daughter or with his mother-in-law or with the past itself, Hawley is a functional mess of a human being who is simple and complicated all in the same breath.
Add into that the relationship between Hawley and Loo as he tries to relate to his teenage daughter and you’ve got a novel that will tug at your heartstrings whether you have a heart or not.
The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley draws on Greek mythology, setting its characters down in a town called Olympus and emulating the Twelve Labours of Hercules in its own way, but I rarely thought of the mythological components of the story. Whether it was intentional of Tanti or not, the mythological aspects of the story became set dressing. Hawley and Loo stood apart from whatever ties to the mythological that they may have had. Hawley especially felt like his own person; neither deriving from the squeaky clean professional athlete that was Disney’s Hercules, nor acting like an arrogant jerk demigod like the mythological Heracles.
Instead, Hawley is quiet and would almost feel like he was subdued if there weren’t flashes of fire behind his quiet persona. Loo has that fire burning closer to the surface, unafraid of the flames in the same way that Hawley has learned to be.
Rather than a myth or a grand epic The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley is a journey, a road trip where the adrenaline highs are balanced out with quieter, softer moments that you’ll remember for all your life.