Since Hannah Tinti’s 2008 debut novel, “The Good Thief,” the world has witnessed the ascendance of smartphones, the phenomenon of binge watching and no less than 24 Marvel superhero movies.
In an era of accelerating entertainment, the near-decade of waiting for her sophomore release has felt interminable. Fortunately for fans, “The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley” doesn’t disappoint.
Tinti’s second novel skillfully channels suspense, longing and loss as it follows Samuel Hawley and his daughter, Loo, attempting to settle down in small-town Massachusetts after years on the road evading a mysterious past.
Hawley is strong, stoic and sharp. He surprises others with hidden skills, and his Colt follows him as closely as his shadow. Hawley tries to find honest work as a fisherman, provide a normal life for his daughter and finally overcome the death of his wife, Lily.
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The only external marks of his criminal days are 12 bullet scars, each with their own story. His internal wounds, on the other hand, aren’t quite healed over: “Hawley was always watching. Always waiting.”
Loo is a school outcast and a hothead, inheriting a bone-breaking temper from her father and piercing emerald eyes from her mom. As if adolescence alone doesn’t provide enough challenges (first kiss, first job, first love, first heartbreak), Loo struggles to become a woman in the absence of a mother, and Hawley’s turbulent background tests the bonds between father and daughter.
As her grandmother warns, “Trouble is a part of him and he’s a part of it and as long as you’re with him you’re in danger.”
“Twelve Lives” is brilliantly structured, alternating between the present narrative of the enigmatic duo’s relocation and flashbacks explaining each of Hawley’s gunshot wounds. These bullet episodes read more like short stories than chapters in a novel, keeping the work fresh and alive and providing expansive settings — from Arctic glacier to Arizona motel to Atlantic pier.
They infuse the book with action, they hold the reader on edge as they work toward their inevitable conclusion, and they both resolve mysteries and raise new ones. The past narrative becomes increasingly human, and the present narrative becomes increasingly savage, until the past shows up on Hawley and Loo’s doorstep, joining the two arcs join in time and tone.
Tinti’s writing is strong and measured; for her, the sentence is not so much a grammatical unit as a rhythmic one. Periods mark almost vocal pauses, as if the entire book were being recounted to a captive fireside audience. The novel’s images intertwine across space and time, colliding in unexpected and satisfying ways.
Tinti has a keen eye for physical detail, like the beard “determined to cross the bridge of his nose” or the motel carpet that “seemed built for the aftermath of violence.” While some metaphors may miss the mark, the vast majority hit their target with precision.
“Twelve Lives” has all the elements of an Academy Award-winning film: enthralling action, unexpected love and a close examination of the human condition.
One moment, Tinti evokes such intense anticipation that readers will catch themselves glancing to the next page for some relief. The next moment, she’ll have readers reflecting on the nature of time, mortality and intimacy.
If the novel has the allure of Hollywood, it also falls prey to some of its clichés: a villain indulges in a dramatic monologue, or a love scene conspicuously cuts from passionate preamble to contemplative aftermath. But readers will soon forget these moments, swept up in the captivating flow of the novel.
The bottom line: Tinti is an excellent storyteller. It should come as no surprise that the editor of the celebrated journal One Story has a well-honed sense of pace, character and voice.
“Twelve Lives” is a moving, human drama of lives inextricably bound to one another, linked by past and present. It raises essential questions of heroism, family and identity — letting readers seek the answers — and embeds them in a truly magnetic story.
Kevin Kotur is an intern from the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s creative writing MFA program.
“The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley” by Hannah Tinti (400 pages; The Dial Press; $27)