‘The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley’ by Hannah Tinti

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley


★★★★

Tini’s book is a well-crafted and highly enjoyable rump of a novel novel. Its plot is like a strong current that I eagerly let myself be swept away by. There are guns, revenge, loss and mystery. I read this book on a plane from cover-to-cover and had fantastic time! The characters may appear stereotypical, but later show surprising depths and hidden contradictions. I loved trying to puzzle out the character of Samuel Hawley, but had I met this guy in real life, I would run away as fast as I could – people around him seem to be constantly dying.

I have a fondness for books about reincarnations, and picked up this book thinking repeated lives would be its topic. It is not. But that does not matter, it still has a great storyline. This book is about Sam Hawley and his daughter Loo. For as long as Loo can remember it has only been her and her father, moving from motel to motel across the country. She does not really think of her childhood as unusual; she has her loving father who teaches her to shoot and tells her stories of her drowned mother.

But when Loo is eleven, they settle down in the small fishing town of Olympia, and soon it becomes clear that she will always be apart from the other children. For one thing, she has spent her early childhood moving from place to place, so she has never had any friends and is unsure about how to connect with kids at her age. For another thing, everyone is afraid her father Hawley, who has bullet-scars all over his body and who can break a man’s jaw with one stroke. As Loo becomes older she begins to understand that although her dad is devoted to her, is always keeping her safe, always playing with her, he is not what other’s would consider normal; their bathroom is a shrine to her late mother, her dad always has a gun with him and he is absolutely terrified someone is going to come and hurt her. Loo begins ask some questions. Why do they always have to move from place to place? Why the intense, never-ending grief for her mother? Where do his scars come from and how come he is so good at stealing cars? Even more troubling are the acquisitions leveled at Hawley by Loo’s grandmother – did he really kill his own wife?

“(…)a criminal or fisherman? A father or a murderer?”

I would find these characters slightly frightening in real-life, or at least unnerving, but looking at the world from their point of view, their world makes sense. Samuel Hawley spent his late teens and twenties as a career criminal – doing the occasional robbery and hiring out as a gunman. He never settles in one place, he never commits to more than a simple one night stand and the only constant person in his life is Jove, a fellow ‘taker’. He admits to enjoying the violence his lifestyle allows him to engage in, but he still feels that his life is missing something.

“(…) gossip spread about how he had earned those scars. As a cop? As a soldier? As a hit man for the mob? Whatever the case, Hawley wasn’t talking.”

For many characters, Hawley is either a mystery or he fits into a stereotype. In Olympus, Hawley’s drinking buddies simply think of him as a bad-ass, brute of a man, without seeing that those parts of him that do not fit with that picture, like his worship of his dead wife and care for his daughter. Jove clearly is not aware of the more extreme crimes committed by Sam just before he quit his life of crime, and still see Sam as his teenage best-friend. Women are attracted by Sam, because he is tall, dark and handsome. But they do not see how troubled he really is. Sam’s mother-in-law hate him, for what we do not find out until the end of the book.

Whales everywhere in this novel. Hawley encounters a whale in his wilder young days, Loo goes to a party in the woods by a rock formation called the Whale’s Jaw, Loo’s classmate Marshall’s step-dad tries to save whales, Loo climbs into a whale’s heart model on a class trip. The whales are everywhere! Perhaps they symbolize the danger always present in Loo and Sam’s lives?

But the book is not just about Sam; it is also a bildungsroman about Loo. The girl is always told that she looks like her mother, but she is also very much like her father. She grows up with guns in the bathroom, guns in the kitchen, guns in the car. She has an enjoyment of violence, like her father. But she is not cruel. She is just not afraid to bite back if threatened. Like her father, she can endure being an outcast. But there are other sides to Loo as well: She loves astronomy, is good at school and has a crush on the environmentalist Marshall. Who will Loo become when she is grown? What life will she choose?

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