Friday, 8 March 2013

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis is a beautiful novel unlike any other. Endorsed by Oprah, it's bound to be a success, but I have to say it really is a special book deserving of a large readership.

The story stretches from 1925 to 1980. Through her eleven children and one of her grandchildren, we get to know the story of Hattie. With her husband August, she moved from the South to Philadelphia in search of a better life. While Hattie is home trying to raise their ever increasing children, August spends their money on liquor and other girls. Through it all, Hattie stoically carries on.

The uniqueness of the story comes through the narrative. Each chapter is focalized through one or two of Hattie's children (or the one grandchild), and only for one chapter. That means that we only get a glimpse into one period in each child's life, whereas the children's stories stretch to cover Hattie's life until she is an old lady in her seventies. Each narrative voice is unique, and each of Hattie's children have interesting stories to tell. What ties them together is the story of Hattie, their longing for her, their ambivalent relationship, their need for her love. Hattie is in no way a model mother. After losing her two firstborns, it is as if she's put a cap on how much love she will give her children. And seeing as she'd been pretty much alone in raising eight kids (two passed away, another was given away), Hattie had to be very pragmatic in her mothering.

What I in fact really love about this novel is how nobody's perfect. Hattie makes mistakes, she regrets things, she might have raised children who turned out to have major issues as adults, but she did her best. And at the end of the day, she makes efforts to right her wrongs. In that sense the novel feels really true and authentic.

At the end of the novel I was really hungry for more. I was hoping for a tie-up where the whereabouts of all of Hattie's children was accounted for, where we got to know how everything would turn out for them. This was not to be, but we do get a sense of hope and continuance when Hattie decides to take on responsibility for her granddaughter Sala. Having a story where we only get a glimpse into someone's life can be frustrating, but it is also a refreshing experience.

I hope they make a movie out of this. And I hope they make it nearly as beautiful as the book is. This novel can't be explained, it has to be experienced.  

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