The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley is a strange and beautiful novel that defies classification. It’s rich in symbolism and mythology, situated as it is in Olympus. Olympus, Massachusetts, that is. But if you ignore all the embellishments, the watches, the whales, the obvious mythological references, it is essentially a story of a father and daughter and how their love is tried, tested, and true.
It’s easy to get entangled in the clever motifs that repeat themselves. The whale sighting near the beginning of the book as Hawley and Jove (Yes! Jove!) are escaping after being Jove is burned and Hawley is shot, the whale’s heart at the museum, the Whale’s Jaw in the center of Dogtown’s woods, and the whale that breeches near the end when Hawley is shot yet again and Loo is steering the boat toward hoped-for rescue. There are the clocks that are all over the place, the burglary where they realize that if the clocks are chiming, someone is winding them. The clepsydra, an ancient water clock, the wristwatch they he and Jove take from Talbot early in the book that Loo forces King to toss into the ocean near the end of the book. Tempus fugit! Whales are fraught with symbolism, life, death, and obsession. And clocks, the symbolism is obvious.
There are two story threads, the contemporary life of Loo and her father Samuel Hawley in Olympus, the town where her mother grew up. They are misfits in the town, both quick to resort to violence. Loo’s grandmother is still alive but does not welcome either of them. The other narrative tells of the twelve bullets (The Twelve Labors!) that Samuel Hawley has taken, often out on a job. He’s a criminal, one who is often the middleman in some antiquities and collectibles illegal trade and importation, delivering the payment to pick up the item for example. Like the Hercules of myth, he’s not the brightest bulb on the string, but he’s strong and has grit.
I liked The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley more than I probably should. I think the careful insertion of whales, watches and mythological references is heavy-handed. I think Tinti even got tired of the Twelve Labors motif, knocking out bullets 7, 8, and 9 in one chapter. I think that contrast between the brutal and obtuse Hawley of the bullets and the loving, mostly wise father of the contemporary narrative is a bridge too far to cross. He shot himself in the foot, for Pete’s sake. These inconsistencies are a weakness. We also have to suspend a couple Aegean stables full of disbelief to believe he has never been caught considering all the times he has been shot and the mayhem left behind. So, yes, the book has its problems, but I still loved so much about it.
Mostly I love Loo. She is smart, curious, and loving. She is capable and hard-working. She is a fascinating character whose uncertainty is hidden by bravado. She loves her father and even when Mabel tries to convince her that her father killed her mother, even when she learns the truth about her father, about his criminal past, she still loves him. She knows him.
Early in the book, Hawley meets a woman who loves a man unworthy of her. She says, “Love isn’t about keeping promises. It’s about knowing someone better than anyone else. I’m the only one who knows him. I’m the only one who will.” Love is the center of this story. Hawley’s love for Loo and for Lily his wife. Loo’s love for Marshall, her first boyfriend. The Lily’s maternal love for Loo and even Mabel’s love for her daughter and granddaughter, crabbed though it might be by loss and resentment. There is a lot of love in this book, underneath all the gunfire.
The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley will be released March 28th. I was provided an advance e-galley by the publisher through NetGalley.