Review of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

the-twelve-tribes_custom-6a80054024c857973e6515991a8ed02933f28957-s6-c10The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis arrived with a great deal of literary street cred: it had been recommended by Oprah, who can still make or break books with nary a blog post. It came with a stunning recommendation from Marilynne Robinson, Orange Prize and Pulitzer Prize winner. Comparisons are being made to inimitable Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison.

Does Twelve Tribes of Hattie live up to these extraordinary claims? This book is an easy shoo-in for my top 13 for 2013, and is unlikely to be booted out of that list any time soon. While the Toni Morrison comparisons are not unfounded, I feel this book deserves more than being lumped in the ‘black female writer’ bracket and being treated as a progressive read by lily-white book clubs. This book, while touching on race, also deals with everything from family to gender to psychosis, while stopping by to discuss religion as well as music. There’s even a brush through midwifery and traditional healing. It is, quite surprisingly, more of a collection of short stories than it is a traditional novel. Through the twelve children of Hattie we discover twelve stories of twelve people, beginning with the heartbreaking departure of Philadelphia and Jubilee and the salvation of Sala.

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Eponymous Hattie is triumphantly drawn, though her life is a wide collection of pain and sacrifice. Called The General by her children, she is a hard, tough, strong woman who bears the pain of losing her children in every manner, who has a husband who is “the greatest mistake of her life”, who somehow manages to feed and clothe and raise a veritable horde of children, each of which grows into and inherits their share of trouble. Each chapter is a look through a prism at Hattie, and her impact on the lives of her children. She is never far from the foreground, and even if she doesn’t appear in the action, she appears in every chapter. Mathis has drawn a remarkably complex woman that one struggles to like or hate, though her strength is easy enough to love.

Ayana Mathis

Ayana Mathis

The novel asks: how do you prepare your children for a world you know is cruel? Through Hattie the reader explores the burdens of parenting, of growing up in the shadow of a mother’s pain and how even the very best intentions can go horribly awry. Add to this the difficulties of racial tensions and outright hatred in America between 1925 – 1980, of being black and gay, of being black and ill, and the novel is filled with complicated troubles and unsentimental discussion. This isn’t a misery memoir but it is filled with great sadness, as it is also lightened by moments of happiness and growth.

Pick this up because you will weep for Hattie, and all she endures for so little thanks. For all she loses, and for all that her children suffer, and for the outstanding depth and maturity of this debut author’s prose.

Read more:

Oprah Interviews Ayana Mathis

Sarah Churchill reviews Twelve Tribes for The Guardian

 The Sunday Times: Three Writers to Watch

 The Atlantic: The Russian Poetry that Inspires Ayana Mathis

A Stirring Portrait of Family, Loss, and Endurance: The Everyday E-Book

The New York Times Sunday Review

VIDEO: Ayana Mathis’ 3 Greatest Writing Lessons

Review of Zone One by Colson Whitehead

This title was billed to me as the thinking person’s zombie novel, released in time for Halloween to match the zeitgeist. Now I usually don’t pick up zombie novels and I’m less than thrilled by zombie games (though Left for Dead is a superb game) but I think that billing Zone One as a zombie novel is a bit of misdirection. I know that literary works generally don’t enjoy the sales of genre novels, so from a marketing point of view I can see why its being lumped with said undead novels.

But the zombies play a background part, and I would argue that New York is a bigger character than most in the novel. In brief, we follow Mark Spitz, a member of a sweeper team whose job it is to kill off the remainder of skels (zombies) and stragglers (zombies who just repeat the same action over and over until they get shot) that the marines left behind after the initial wipeout. Amongst their sweeps through battered, post-apocalyptic New York, they struggle with PASD (Post-Apocalyptic Stress Syndrome) and what it means to rebuild their lives amongst a hopelessly destroyed world trying to reassert itself with mantras and desperate hope. This is where it starts to get deliciously literary and less cheap paperback thrills. New York looms always in the landscape, and the novel is an exploration of our lives as we know it, including the subways and human relations and how people might react when most of the world turns into monsters.

This is not like most novels, with a clear path of action and a conclusive happy ending. This is a languid stroll through psyche and city, lifting the rocks where fears and dreams live and how people ultimately strive for some kind of hope. The camps where triplets are born and crops are being raised are the best, grandest hopes that the survivors have. It is a sharp-eyed view of America in the style of Chuck Paulahnuik but less visercal, perhaps. Whitehead is definitely a literary voice with huge accessibility. The descriptions of life before Last Night (when the world turned) make for superb social commentary without it being obvious. The survivor’s mind is explored in depth, encouraging the reader to ask what they would do when in a house surrounded by hundreds of zombies shuffling around it for days and days.

Overall, Zone One is that kind of novel that feels like a hot bath in winter. Wonderful to immerse in, and with no other reason than because its a fine way to pass the time. There’s no heart-pounding action or sweeping romance (or any of those tired adjectival phrases that so litter book blurbs) but nonetheless it was a rewarding and thought-provoking read.

Read more about Colson Whitehead and this novel here at The Atlantic