I found I couldn’t read The Twelve Tribes of Hattie as a straight shot. The narrative was so relentlessly bleak I had to take the odd break to remind myself that joy exists in the world. But I returned to the novel eagerly each time, partly because the story is compelling, but largely because the writing is flawlessly beautiful.
We first meet Hattie, the title character, at 17-years-old. She’s holed up in the bathroom of her rented house, fighting to save her twin babies from pneumonia.
The children, Philadelphia and Jubilee, have been named to reflect Hattie’s hopes for life in the north. She “wanted to give her babies names that weren’t chiseled on a headstone in the family plots in Georgia, so she gave them names of promise and hope, reaching forward names, not looking back ones.” When the babies die, Hattie’s optimism leaves with them.
Her grief is compounded by disappointment in her husband. He turns out to be a self-defeating man who drinks his pay cheques and sleeps around with women who “didn’t mean anything. They just made his life a little more livable from one day to the next.” His behaviour traps his wife and children in a cycle of poverty: “Hattie could almost hear them growing, their wrists lengthening and poking out beyond the cuffs of their sleeves, their feet outgrowing their shoes, their shoulders widening and pulling the fabric of their coats taut.”
While Hattie’s marriage sours, the children keep on coming. Eleven in total. Though Hattie loves her children fiercely and cares for them in every practical way, her misery makes her cold and her bitterness infects her offspring. Each chapter delves into the life of another child. And in each we discover a new form of unhappiness.
Mathis’ writing is rich, lyrical, confident and transporting. Yet it never gets in the way of the story. Her characters are well developed, her story is perfectly-paced and her canvass is vast. There are simply no faults to find. Apart from all that gloom.