In an interview with Bookslut about her second novel, 2008’s “The Invention of Everything Else,” novelist Samantha Hunt declared her allegiance to and her reverence for mystery:
“The writers I most appreciate are those who pose mysteries and admit that they are unsolvable. The world is a mysterious place and part of the joy of being alive for me is that it is unknowable. There is always more mystery, always more to learn.”
This remark could stand as an epigraph to Hunt’s just-published third novel, “Mr. Splitfoot,” at once an intriguing mystery with clues, suspense, enigmas galore, and an exhilarating, witty, poignant paean to the unexplainable, the unsolvable, the irreducibly mysterious.
Hunt takes her title from the real-life story of the Fox sisters, 19th-century mediums who claimed to contact a spirit (or devil) known as Mr. Splitfoot. The sisters took the United States by storm with their charismatic “performances,” but later confessed to fraud and came to ill-fated ends.
“Mr. Splitfoot” begins with a séance, as Nat and Ruth, two 17-year-old orphans, attempt to contact Ruth’s dead mother. Nat, an erstwhile arsonist and a kleptomaniac, and Ruth, her face marked by a hideous scar, call each other “sister” — a word that evokes the Fox sisters and conveys their sexless yet profound bond.
Nat and Ruth live at The Love of Christ! Foster Home, Farm, and Mission, a place for damaged children of damaged or dead parents, presided over by the Father, “[p]art hippie, part psychopath,” and the Mother, “a part-time parishioner, part-time wife, part-time drug addict.” Once “a drunk in Buffalo on the jam band circuit,” the Father dresses his charges in what look like costumes from “Little House on the Prairie,” prohibits “corrupting influences” like television and soda, and gives “vitriolic sermons” about the Apocalypse. When he isn’t fulminating against sin, he slips off to his “private quarters” to enjoy a private stash of “liquor, an Internet connection, and the only phone in the house.”
“Mr. Splitfoot” explores the fine line between con artists and true seers, theatricality and spiritual fervor, mental illness and religious conviction. An enigmatic man named Mr. Bell becomes the manager of Nat’s and Ruth’s “careers as seers, mediums, psychics.” Whether they’re actually “[c]ontacting the dead” or merely “putting on a good show,” word rapidly spreads about their talents, and the bereaved line up while the threesome rakes in cash.
In the hospital for a ruptured appendix, Ruth meets Zeke, a creepy man who seems enraptured by her; soon he shows up at The Love of Christ! to ask the Father for her hand in marriage. Ruth proposes marrying Mr. Bell instead (“marriage would mean no more state”), and soon Mr. Bell, Nat, and Ruth are traipsing across New York in search of captive audiences and in flight from both Zeke and Ceph, a troubled fellow denizen of Love of Christ! who’s stalking Ruth.
That’s the setup for one storyline. The other also describes a cross-state odyssey, but is set 14 years later and narrated by Cora, the daughter of Ruth’s older sister, El. Cora has a mind-numbing job at an insurance company and is pregnant by her married lover, who wants her to get rid of the baby. When her aunt Ruth, whom she hasn’t seen since Ruth was 17, unexpectedly shows up hiding behind Cora’s bedroom door, Cora is frightened, titillated, curious. For Cora, tired of the “dull gray fuzz” of her life and drawn to the aunt she’s always idolized, Ruth’s reappearance “opens a line into magic, possibility . . . mystery,” and Cora follows that line and her aunt on a strange journey across New York.
More and more mysteries pile up. Why has Mr. Bell “obsessively replicated and drawn the explosions that scar Ruth’s face?” How is he related to a charismatic, cocaine-addicted cult leader named Mardellion? Who are the Etherists? Why doesn’t Ruth speak anymore?
As she walks behind her silent aunt, Cora is “parsing through the confusion of motherhood”:
“There’s . . . no properly complex word for what’s between a mother and a daughter, roots so twisted, a relationship so deep, people suffocated it in kitsch and comfort words to pretend it’s easy.”
Ruth, too, ponders boundaries and the bonds that transcend them: “For her, Mr. Splitfoot is a two that is sometimes a one, mothers and their children, Nat and Ruth, life and death.”
Hunt is dedicated to delving deep, confronting difficulty, and unearthing complicated emotions and experiences buried beneath layers of kitsch and cliche. But her epistemological and ethical rigor are complemented by a lovely respect for what remains uncategorizable, unable to be mastered or explained away. When a frustrated Nat expresses his lack of belief in any higher power — from God to aliens — Ruth reassures and consoles him in words that echo Hunt’s interview: “Forget God. Or don’t call it that. I’m talking about mystery, unsolvable mystery. Maybe it’s as simple as love. I say it exists.”
By Samantha Hunt
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,
322 pp., $24
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’