Book review: The Twelve Tribes Of Hattie - Ayana Mathis

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TWO days after her father’s murder by white men with shotguns, Hattie is scrambling through the Georgia under-brush with her mother and sisters, hurrying north, lured by the promise of a better life for African-Americans, away from the states where they were ­enslaved.

The Twelve Tribes Of Hattie

Ayana Mathis

Hutchinson, £12.99

Lee Randall

When The Twelve Tribes Of Hattie opens, it’s 1925, and Hattie, now 17 and married, is holed up in a steamy bathroom with her seven-month-old twins, fighting a losing battle against the pneumonia that’s killing them because she’s too poor to call a doctor.

Ayana Mathis bravely tackles that time-honoured theme, the Great American Dream, and like so many before her, finds it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, even if you can surmount poverty and racism. It is also, she explains, “the story of the exodus of six million blacks from the terrors of the South in the early to mid-20th century. Their movement transformed America. Men and women like Hattie and [her husband] August founded a new nation in the great ­cities … they are unremarked and unsung, but they are the progenitors of a profoundly enriched cultural and political landscape.”

All that’s true, and the opening chapter is a cracker, exquisitely written, full of vividly evoked tension and searing emotion. It is painful – relentlessly so – with a devastating coup de grace. But then somehow the rest of the book falls off. Subsequent chapters leapfrog us across the century in long and short hops. Most are narrated from the perspective of one of Hattie’s nine surviving children – she has her last at 46 – bar a chapter focusing on Hattie’s abortive flight from home with her lover, Lawrence, and another from the viewpoint of her grandchild. Until, that is, the final, jarring pages, when Hattie’s voice takes over.

Because this is a novel in the form of linked short stories, ideas are repeated more often than is necessary, such as the essential thesis, summed up (again) in the final chapter: “Hattie knew her children did not think her a kind woman – perhaps she wasn’t, but there hadn’t been time for sentiment when they were young. They didn’t seem to understand that all the love she had was taken up with feeding them and clothing them and preparing them to meet the world. The world would not love them; the world would not be kind.”

The format also means that just as we begin to know and care for a character, he or she is snatched away again, and thereafter only glimpsed – if at all – at a remove. This underscores my biggest dissatisfaction, that Mathis’s theme is driving her characters, rather than the other way around. Each of Hattie’s children represents a “type” – the jazz musician, the testifying preacher, the confused young soldier, the desperately ill child Hattie is able to save, etc. Thus, frustratingly, it feels as though events occur because they’re in the prescribed script for the archetype, not driven by personality.

One should never review the book the author didn’t write, but based on elements that are there on the page, I would have loved an expanded analysis of the fecklessness of men, and of the way that men and women repeat emotional and behavioural patterns that they do not resolve, even across the generations. I was curious about the fact that some of Hattie’s children return to the South, and wanted her to delve more deeply there, especially since much is made of their father August’s yearning for Southern landscapes which, incidentally, are described with enough rich, tempting ­detail to make the most die-hard Yankee feel a yearning.

This novel comes highly recommended by the laudable Marilynne Robinson, but ­closer inspection reveals that Mathis was one of Robinson’s students at the renowned Iowa Writer’s Workshop. While that doesn’t negate her plaudits, it does suggest a vested interest in Mathis’s career. Of course this happens all the time in publishing, and yet … and yet.

At the wind-up, The Twelve Tribes Of Hattie is somewhat uneven, but undeniably promising. «