A hardened career criminal and seasoned murderer is not a guy I can admire. So why did I identify so closely with him?
“The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley,” a new novel by Hannah Tinti, tells the story of a modern-day criminal on a terrifying mission to clean up everything from his past. A TIME review described it as, “Hercules wields a shotgun.” Intrigued, I downloaded it within days of its March release, unsure if I was plunging into a family drama, science fiction, mythology or a crime thriller.
I found a little of each in Tinti’s pages. Her prowess at putting readers inside the minds of Samuel Hawley and his daughter, Loo, creates a rich family drama and brings authenticity to what might have been only a surrealistic crime story. As readers, we live the piercing trials of the adolescent Loo growing up on the social edges of every community Hawley drags her through. We are, like them, soaked in memories of Loo’s dead mother and living with the past and present in chorus.
Like good sci-fi, “Twelve Lives” provides a solid platform for existentialism. Hawley’s acts and what he survives are other-worldly, yet his behaviors and thoughts are authentic and, at times, admirable. He’s no hero, but he’s human. He acts with free will based on what has meaning to him, rather than what is rational.
As for mythology, Tinti says some of her original ideas for the book came from, “The Twelve Labors of Hercules,” but her work is much edgier – the circumstances messier. And there’s no shortage of crime thriller material, thanks to Hawley’s conflicted journey, thoughts and willful violence.
With all this in mind, I was startled to find myself feeling a connection to the trigger-ready Hawley. I’m not into violence and mayhem, so what was I identifying with?
A recurring theme in “Twelve Lives” is Hawley’s unyielding commitment to battle anything and everything that might endanger his child, the only living recipient of his love. He never strays from this agenda, regardless of the obstacles. His anger with the forces trying to bring them down is palpable; his bent for immediate action ever present.
It was in Tinti’s portrayals of desperate combat that I discovered my connection to Hawley. I’m a foster parent. Like him, I battle against my kids’ painful histories every day. Like him, I see the unhappy events of my children’s early years well up within moments of their adolescent challenges and triumphs. Like Hawley and Loo, I feel myself and my kids barely containing our anger at what took place in the past – and how it affects the present. Laying yesterday to rest while tackling today’s realities is a struggle that often pushes us apart.
Hawley’s energy and commitment to Loo form a metaphor for what I feel as the parent of children haunted by the demons of their pasts. His mayhem is the metaphor for what I wish I could do to banish these demons from my kids’ lives forever.
“Twelve Lives” is at once a violent family drama, science fiction, mythology and crime thriller. Amazingly, it also delivers a healthy dose of optimism. Hawley inspires me to keep trying to right the wrongs in my kids’ lives. Loo’s growth gives me hope they’ll emerge from the craziness of adolescence and become successful adults. As a foster parent, I want nothing less. – LANGSTON