Wednesday, January 6, 2016

book review: Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt

The backstory: I read Samantha Hunt's first novel, The Seas, when it was longlisted for the Orange Prize in 2011. At the time, I said, "Despite Hunt's somewhat ironic assertion that "details make a story even as unbelievable as mine believable," neither the details nor the narrative made this novel believable, yet it couldn't compel me to suspend belief and enter its world either." But I loved Hunt's writing, so I was curious about Mr. Splitfoot, her latest novel.

The basics:  "Ruth and Nat are orphans, packed into a house full of abandoned children run by a religious fanatic. To entertain their siblings, they channel the dead. Decades later, Ruth’s niece, Cora, finds herself accidentally pregnant. After years of absence, Aunt Ruth appears, mute and full of intention. She is on a mysterious mission, leading Cora on an odyssey across the entire state of New York on foot. Where is Ruth taking them? Where has she been? And who — or what — has she hidden in the woods at the end of the road?"--publisher

My thoughts: Many people get excited about a book billed as a contemporary ghost story. I am not one of those people. Honestly, I can't say I've read enough of them to have an opinion, but the presence of ghosts alone is not enough to excite me. It's everything else in the description of this novel that piqued my interest: orphans, abandoned children, religious fanatic, accidental pregnancy, years of absence, mysterious mission, etc.

When this book begins, it doesn't feel gothic. Instead, it's heartbreaking: "She doesn't even know enough about mothers to fabricate a good one. Her idea of a mother is like a non-dead person's idea of heaven. It must be great. It must be huge. It must be better than what she's got now." Even in this admittedly depressing environment, there is a playfulness about:
"At Love of Christ! children feel the Lord, and the Lord is often furious and unpredictable, so Father Arthur cowers from corrupting influences. No Walt Disney, soda pop, or women's slacks pass his threshold. No Walt Disney, soda pop, or women's slacks pass his threshold. The children milk goats, candle and collect eggs, preserve produce, and make yogurt from cultures they've kept alive for years. Blessed be the bacteria. The children remain ignorant of the bountiful mysteries filling the nearby Price Chopper."
Mr. Splitfoot features alternating storylines, both of which feature Ruth. In the first, she is a 17-year-old orphan at the Love of Christ! Foster Home, and she narrates. In the second, many years later, she returns for her niece and they begin their mysterious mission. Here, Cora narrates. In terms of structure, Mr. Splitfoot is impressive. Both storylines reference each other and build upon each other. I read carefully and spotted clues throughout. Hunt doesn't draw the lines, but she does help guide you to deeper connections. As I read, I was completely enamored with this novel. The observational humor is fantastic: "She hears his funny way of talking, using more words than necessary as if he enjoys them. Maybe he went to college. Maybe he's Canadian." The journeys, both within and of the narrative, are captivating. Yet when the story reached its conclusion, I expected a reveal of some sort. Instead, I discovered all the clues Hunt dropped that I picked up on were true, which is fine, but somewhat disappointing for a novel that's so inventive and wise throughout to end in such an ordinary way.

Favorite passage: "Motherhood," she says, "despite being immensely common, remains the greatest mystery, and all the language people use to describe it, kitschy words like 'comfort' and 'loving arms' and 'nursing,' is to convince women to stay put."

The verdict: Mr. Splitfoot is a stunning narrative journey filled with memorable characters, ideas and events. That it's ending is somewhat ordinary is its sole disappointment, even if it was the novel itself that led me to believe something magical was about to happen. In fact, it already had.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 336 pages
Publication date: January 5, 2016
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Mr. Splitfoot from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Samantha Hunt's website

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

1 comment:

Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!