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The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

February 17, 2013

Fifteen years old and blazing with the hope of a better life, Hattie Shepherd fled the horror of the American South on a dawn train bound for Philadelphia.

Hattie’s is a tale of strength, of resilience and heartbreak that spans six decades. Her American dream is shattered time and again: a husband who lies and cheats and nine children raised in a cramped little house that was only ever supposed to be temporary.

She keeps the children alive with sheer will and not an ounce of the affection they crave. She knows they don’t think her a kind woman – but how could they understand that all the love she had was used up in feeding them and clothing them.

How do you prepare your children for a world you know is cruel?


You may have heard of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie already, what with the rave reviews its already garnered from various journalists and writers, and I can honestly say; quite deservedly so. I can’t say I normally listen out for Oprah Winfrey’s book recommendations, but if this novel is anything to go by, I may have to start paying a little more attention.

What struck me from the very first page is the wonderful quality of writing that shines through an otherwise heart-breaking story. For a debut novelist, Ayana Mathis couldn’t have done more to grab my attention with the way she artistically weaves her words together to create sentences that resonate all the way through you. I found myself reading the novel rather slowly, just savouring each word and taking it all in, not letting anything slip through my concentration, and it’s not often I find a book that I can do this with.

I was almost surprised to find some rather negative reviews online, particularly regarding the narrative style of the book. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different child of Hattie’s each time, and in a different year. In fact the whole novel spans from 1925 to 1980, and I thought this gave you not only a great glimpse into the whole of Hattie’s family, but also into how America changes throughout those years. However, other reads seem to have found it a rather disjointed narrative, meaning you get little of Hattie’s character as you would have liked. For me, each child took me back to Hattie and the hardships life dealt her. Everyone is connected and for me this style was a wonderful way to see how each child becomes their own person in a very large family, and how Hattie loves each one of them differently, but no less. The novel deals with everything from love, death, racial conflict, homosexuality, suicide and alcoholism, and it’s easy to see how decisions early in life can still make their presence known generations down the line.

If I could criticise this novel in any way it would only be to say that I felt the last few chapters, set in 80s America, felt a little less meaningful than the rest of the novel. They were still well written, but not quite up to the high standards presented earlier in the book.

I really adored this book. It was everything I wanted it to be and more. I would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a new literary voice in their lives, and for a beautifully written story with more heart than anything I’ve read in a long time. Trust me when I say Ayana Mathis is definitely an author to look out for.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is out now, published by Hutchinson. A massive thank you goes to the publisher for providing me with a copy for review.

Rating stars4

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