The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti (2017)

12 lives

This wonderful novel seamlessly weaves together three distinct stories — a present-day thriller, a coming of age drama, and a reflection of one man’s troubled past — into one well-written and utterly unique book.

In the opening chapters of the book, we meet our twelve-year-old narrator, Loo, and her father Samuel Hawley, who have settled down in a small Massachusetts town after a life of many changes, many moves, and almost no personal connections to anyone but one another. Hawley finally feels his troubled past is no longer a threat and wants a normal life for his daughter. He chooses the town where his dead wife was raised, hoping to give both he and his daughter some connection to her.

Loo is both glad to have a more stable life and miserable to be — yet again — the new kid with the weird habits and nothing in common with other kids her age. In her early years in town, she is shunned by her maternal grandmother and relentlessly bullied by the kids in town. As she ages over the five years covered in the book, she comes to realize that the secrets surrounding her father’s past and her mother’s death are getting in the way of her really feeling like she has the answers she needs, and without those she has no sense of who she is or how she can be happy.

In the alternating chapters our other narrator, Samuel Hawley, tells us of his reckless, tragedy-filled past in twelve very specific flashbacks; each one is a story of how he acquired one of the twelve bullet-wounds that scar his body. He discusses the events that led up to each shooting, the gun fights that left him wounded, and the ways that each incident changed his life forever. These chapters paint a portrait of a troubled young man whose limited choices led him to a risky life that continues to haunt him even now.

Hawley lives in fear that his past sins will bring harm — or at least heartache — to Loo, but as his daughter grows into a teenager, his secrets begin to drive a wedge between the two. Even after four years in their small town, Hawley still worries they will have to run at a moment’s notice and so he attempts to stop Loo from forming friendships. This forces Loo to begin to keep her own dangerous secrets and to covertly look into her father’s checkered past, determined to find the answers he will not give her. The lies between them multiply and the tension builds as the novel reveals more and more of Hawley’s past lives and the dangerous enemies who might still be after him. In order for their family to finally live a peaceful life, the past must be revealed and the secrets brought into the light before they tear them apart.

The author skillfully gives us the point of view of a teenage girl trying to make sense of her life without losing her closeness with her father. In her alternating chapters, she easily changes voices and gives us a look into the thrilling, dangerous life — filled with guns, murders, lies, and betrayals — that transformed Hawley in the secretive, overly protective man he is now. As these parallel stories unfold, we get glimpses into Hawley and Loo as they fumbled their way forward, forming an unconventional but loving family of two…a family that stands to be torn apart by secrets.

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