The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley
It may be that our life stories can be read in our eyes or are written on our skin --- that our bodies are maps and decoding devices to the places and secrets within us. For Samuel Hawley, the story of his adult life is told in the 12 scars across his body, 12 places where he was shot on 10 different occasions. An enigmatic, drifting and mostly lonely criminal, he is also a caring, if reserved, single father to his daughter, Loo. The two are at the center of Hannah Tinti’s THE TWELVE LIVES OF SAMUEL HAWLEY, a novel that reveals itself and its titular antihero with each firing of a gun.
Until they settled for a five-year period in Olympus, Massachusetts, Hawley and Loo had always been on the move. Sometimes they lived in cheap rentals, other times motels, and sometimes still they slept, with a bear skin rug and Hawley’s gun collection, in their truck. But Olympus is where Loo’s mom and Hawley’s wife, Lily, was from. And even though it is a town she left without looking back, the pair she left behind are drawn to it. Lily drowned when Loo was just a baby, and all Loo has of her mother is the sad and wretched display of personal items Hawley sets up in every bathroom where they live. Olympus is also the town where Lily’s mother, Mabel, still resides --- a potential source of information for Loo even as she is a potential source of strife for Hawley.
"One of Tinti’s great successes here, in addition to her enjoyable narrative and interesting characters, is her ability to assert...romantic truths in a story that also contains such graphic pain and harm."
Loo comes of age in Olympus, and both she and her father move from troublesome outsiders to reluctantly accepted residents. Loo falls in love, and Hawley seems to settle down. But Tinti’s novel is far from a straightforward familial narrative. Her chapters move back and forth in time until they meet in the present, when once again Hawley and his daughter are uprooted and in the kind of danger that they never before articulated to each other. In alternating chapters, readers learn most, but not all, of Hawley’s backstory. He is a skilled professional thief who falls in love and marries the rebellious Lily. He is a father who walks away from the daughter he initially didn’t want, in order to protect her. Each bullet wound he suffers is a job gone horribly awry, and each brings him closer to the ultimate moment with his daughter when his true nature is revealed and the strength of their love and loyalty is tested in a life-and-death situation.
Both Hawley and Loo are dark, violent characters. But each is also capable of great and poetic love, and their bonds to each other seem unbreakable. While so much of Hawley’s tale is far-fetched (How many times can one person be shot, left bleeding and dying? How long can one evade a revengeful crime boss?), it is also beautifully told and totally absorbing. Tinti explores identity, true love, acts of selflessness, and the legacies we inherit from our parents. THE TWELVE LIVES OF SAMUEL HAWLEY has occasional epic moments; Hawley’s meeting with a whale, for example, appears to symbolize the struggle that Tinti elsewhere describes more explicitly. Even the breath control that Hawley and Loo practice when they fire guns seems, as it’s repeated and shared throughout the story, to take on a philosophical meaning.
Toward the end of the novel, Loo has a lovely realization, one that is a bit heartbreaking in its innocence and simplicity, that what most people share is a “flickering hope...desperate need to be loved,” and that so many hearts are “all cycling through the same madness --- the discovery, the bliss, the loss, the despair...that they would find love and lose love, and recover from love and love again.” One of Tinti’s great successes here, in addition to her enjoyable narrative and interesting characters, is her ability to assert such romantic truths in a story that also contains such graphic pain and harm.
THE TWELVE LIVES OF SAMUEL HAWLEY is a rich, thoughtful and gripping novel.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on March 31, 2017