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book review

Her mother long dead, a girl traces her parents’ lives through her father’s bullet wounds

Sam Hawley is a stealthy fugitive, a well-armed man trying to outrun his enemies and his sorrow. Whichever pocket of the country is his hideaway, whether he is bunking in a motel room off the highway or a cabin in the wilds, he always sets up the shrine.

It’s like an art installation of a woman’s vanished presence: a tube of lipstick, a compact of pressed powder, a toothbrush, a green silk robe. There are cans of the foods she liked, bits of paper she wrote on, opened bottles of shampoo and conditioner that she used on her long, black hair. And stuck to the walls, wilted from damp air, photos of her — beautiful, green-eyed Lily, Hawley’s dead wife.

“It’s how I remember,” he tells Jove, his friend and sometime partner in lucrative, violent crime.

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“That’s not remembering,” Jove says. “That’s burying yourself alive.”

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Lily is the absence at the core of “The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley,” Hannah Tinti’s beautifully constructed second novel, which uses the scars on Hawley’s body — all 12 bullet wounds, one by one — to show who he is, what he’s done, and why the past chases and clings to him with such tenacity. Nearly nine years after “The Good Thief,” Tinti has fused a cowboy-noir action adventure and a coming-of-age tale into a father-daughter love story.

It’s for his daughter, Loo, who has spent her childhood on the run with him, that Hawley finally comes out of the shadows and settles down. She is 11 when they arrive in a fishing town near Gloucester called Olympus, where he buys a bayside house and sets up the shrine anew. These artifacts are most of what she knows about her mother, who died before baby Loo could cut a second tooth.

Her taciturn, tender, ever-vigilant father is the center of her universe, a 6-foot, 4-inch, magnet for women who holds his grief and his secrets close. Loo doesn’t know much about him either, really — like why he never leaves the house without a gun, or why he has so many of them, or why, when he’s digging for quahogs, he keeps his back to the water, not the beach. She has no inkling of the years when he terrorized, maimed, and slaughtered, and was still able to sleep at night.

The scenes of his mayhem are gory, with no shortage of innocent people permanently harmed — and this, actually, is one of the novel’s most distinctive features. Aside from the final action sequence, which is pure Hollywood-style derring-do set on the ocean (and includes one plot twist, involving a temporary inability to navigate, that feels bizarrely false), Tinti never glamorizes violence. She forces us to look at the damage wrought, to hear the crunch of bone, to see the copious blood, to take in the bystanders, now broken or dying or dead.

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Even in Olympus, where Lily grew up and her mother, Mabel, still lives — hating Hawley with her every breath, certain that he killed her daughter — he doesn’t entirely rein in his savagery. He never aims it at Loo, yet she has inherited his taste for it: When a boy named Marshall steals her shoes (poor thing, he has a crush), Loo breaks his finger. And enjoys it.

Hawley and Loo struggle to be good, to fit in. They don’t outright fail at either.

With at least as many gaping holes in the story Loo knows about their lives as there are scars on her father, she scavenges for clues about her mother — from the principal at her school, who grew up with Lily and loved her unrequitedly, and from her grandmother, who has her own grief to tend. Mabel doesn’t buy the official story of Lily’s death: that this strong swimmer, raised on the Atlantic, drowned in a Wisconsin lake.

Tinti, a Salem native, layers chapters set in Olympus with chapters that tell the circumstances of each bullet would. Hawley has taken three already when he meets Lily, and six more before she dies.

He is a smart man, but an awfully slow learner. By the time he clearly sees the life he’s built, he is trapped in it, and so is Loo, unaware of the omnipresent danger. Shielding her from brutal truths, Hawley tries to teach her to survive. She learns unintended lessons from him, too, though. Like him, she has romanticized her loss into a kind of exceptionalism.

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Marshall, who despite the finger-breaking becomes a friend to the teenage Loo, sets her straight on this.

“A dead parent doesn’t make you special,” he says. “It just makes you sad.”

THE TWELVE LIVES

OF SAMUEL HAWLEY

By Hannah Tinti

Dial, 376 pp., $27

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at laura.collinshughes@gmail.com.