Hattie is 17. With her mother and sisters, she has left Georgia and the Jim Crow laws for Philadelphia and a better life.
If she lived to be one hundred, Hattie would still see…her father’s body collapsed in the corner of his smithy, the two white men walking from his shop without enough shame to quicken their pace or hide their guns.
At that very moment [while Hattie, her mum and sisters are leaving Georgia] the white men were taking his name plaque from the door of his blacksmith’s shop and putting up their own.
Unbeknownst to Hattie, she’s pregnant with twins to a man ‘she only liked…because he was a secret from her mama and because it thrilled her to go out with a country boy she thought beneath her’. As the novel begins, she is nursing the twins – Philadephia and Jubilee – as they battle with pneumonia. Their death frames the rest of Hattie’s (and her husband/the twins’ father, August’s) life. She becomes stoic, making sure the nine children and one grandchild that follow have the basic necessities of life while August womanises, drinks and gambles.
The chapters are each about, or told from, the point of view of the children and grandchild – the twelve tribes. We learn about their lives and through them, the life that Hattie and August lead.
Hattie’s children have their own issues: one, a touring Jazz trumpeter womanises to try and cover his homosexuality; another has become a preacher, moving state to escape punishment for the horrific beating he has given another boy; a third has gone to war not knowing that his estranged wife was pregnant when he left. Of the girls, one has married well – a doctor – but is depressed and delusional, misremembering childhood abuse that was inflicted on one of her brothers; another tries to kill herself after an affair ends badly, and the one who is a mother herself has to be sectioned while Hattie and August protect her daughter.
This all makes it sound rather grim and depressing but the novel’s so beautifully written, the characters so fully fleshed, that you’re immersed in their worlds – the worlds that this matriarch has survived for so long (Hattie’s 71 at the end of the book) – and it becomes a story of human resilience. This is not a book about the experience of black people – although their migration and the Jim Crow laws certainly frame the novel – it is a book about the experience of all of us.
Ayana Mathis has written an incredible debut. Already a firm contender for one of my books of the year.
Thanks to Hutchinson Books for the review copy.