If, as a conservative estimate holds, 50,000 novels per annum are published in this country alone, then something beyond a combination of luck, connection, and talent is required to propel a small handful of them to hoopla status as one of the year’s “big books.” Magic, perhaps.
Conjuring literary magic is at once a matter of repetitive practice and the mysterious workings of a telepathic meter for knowing what readers crave. Only then does an author get a shot at a place in the pantheon. With the publication of The Good Thief in 2008 Hannah Tinti ascended to where the air starts getting thin. With her new novel, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, she has reached publishing’s empyrean heights. She has pulled off the writer-magician’s ultimate trick.
An allusion to celestial attainment is more than apt, considering the foundation of her novel’s architecture is built on a modern-day retelling of the Twelve Labors of Hercules. It is also — and here its bona fides as a contemporary literary novel are presented with a flourish — an intricate mélange of propulsive thriller and sophisticated character study, narrated à la mode from shifting points of time and place and dusted lightly with supernatural suggestion. Of the second after a trigger is pulled, we read, “For a brief moment she was nothing but a person in a place and there was no past and there was no future, only this single moment where her life flashed open — and she was awake and she was alive and she was real.” Tinti writes like a sharp lathe cuts.
The titular character, a father on the run from a dark past, possesses a superhero’s ability to have survived explosive dangers. His co-traveler is his young daughter, Loo (short for Louise). As endearing as her father is sadly affecting, she is an obdurate chip off the old block. Loo is introduced in the first pages with a gun in her hand, while a shot from another rings down the final curtain. Symmetry is something of a fixation with the author. Depending on your preferences it will either amaze how many items she can make appear and reappear (leitmotifs run from gun-firing technique to whales to cigarettes, Chinese food, and a medical kit) or become mildly annoying in its stainless showmanship.
Clever of Tinti, too, to have mined ancient mythology, for its all-too-human characters are the richest lode. Like Hercules, Samuel Hawley is a god with a temper. Samuel is often tempted and found unequal to a challenge; he is as strong as he is weak. He is imperfect and he is great, because he allows himself to be transformed by love. This is his ticket to immortality, to Olympus — which is here a fictional town in Massachusetts. As in the myths, the natural world is also imbued with the power of vengeance: the ocean and its denizens swallow people without compunction; the constellations above — a recurrent image in a book replete with decorative and ingeniously deployed symbolism — are wistful stories of error etched permanently in the sky.
The plot contains surprises, the mise-en-scène is full of vibrant visual detail, the characters are idiosyncratic, and the climax is as heartwarming as it is unexpected — Tinti’s novel seems premade for the screen (so long as the cinematic realization is in the hands of a director who can somehow channel Hitchcock, Michael Curtiz, and Ingmar Bergman). It has, naturally, already been optioned.
The screenwriter will need preternatural talent, too, in order to convey the sort of breathtakingly compressed thematic summaries Tinti is wise enough to drop ever so sparingly into the action.
Their hearts were all cycling through the same madness — the discovery, the bliss, the loss, the despair — like planets taking turns in orbit around the sun. Each containing their own unique gravity. Their own force of attraction. Drawing near and holding fast to whatever entered their own atmosphere.
Loo grows into her own maturity as her father reckons with his. With elaborate authorial intention the image of the heart, oversized or beating or stopping with a bang, recurs to a simple but powerful end.
Reaching the end of a novel this meticulously constructed is like standing in the stairwell of a multistory building and looking down the vertiginous drop at the many geometric coils of the stair you climbed to get here. The years Tinti spent working on this novel are reflected in it in both good and bad ways, just as its characters are a seamless mix of morally questionable and hearteningly kind. Every writer is of course the god of her own work, rearranging the landscape of creation and animating all who wander in it. This one is very much like an invaluable pocket watch it describes, timepieces being one of almost too many musically repeated figures, whose worth is dependent on the number of “complications” it contains. (That’s a term both technical and symbolic.) The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley displays such a high degree of polish any trace of the maker’s hand is removed. Every sentence perfect, every circumstance layered with meaning, effect, intrigue, and forward motion. Can a writer be too good? That’s the one question posed by her novel the omnipotent author never foretold.