Bookmunch reviews: HHhH and The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

Here’s my latest couple of reviews for Bookmunch.

Laurent Binet, HHhH (2009/12)

In 1942, Czech Jan Kubiš and Slovak Jozef Gabčík were sent from London and parachuted secretly into Prague. Their mission: to kill Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Gestapo, widely considered in the SS to be the brains behind his superior (‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich,’ they’d say – Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich, or HHhH). Laurent Binet heard this story as a child, and became more and more fascinated by it after going to Slovakia as a teacher, and finding the church crypt where Gabčík and Kubiš hid after their attempt on Heydrich’s life. In this novel, Binet tells the men’s story – but he also chronicles the process of research and writing, and the difficulties of making fiction out of real events.

This is a fascinating approach. Binet may present a scene that reads like historical fiction, then unpick it in the next chapter, asking how much he can really be sure about, what he may have left out or glossed for the shape of his story. It has the effect of creating tension even when you know broadly where the history is heading, because suddenly nothing is certain. Alongside this, as Binet tells of his time researching and writing HHhH, it too takes on something of the quality of fiction – and the lines between what’s real and what’s not are shown to be ever more blurred.

The prose in HHhH is often matter-of-fact rather than colourful. It’s not that Binet doesn’t do colour: there are some gripping passages of narrative as Gabčík’s and Kubiš’s mission reaches its climax (I must add here that Sam Taylor’s translation from the French is superb). Rather, I suspect that the more neutral tone represents Binet’s desire to remain true to the history (perhaps the change of tone towards the end is a recognition that he can’t do so completely). And I don’t find that tone dry, nor Binet’s interjections intrusive; HHhH works well as a whole, both as a tale of history and the pitfalls of telling it.

Any Cop?: If you’re in the mood for a novel which is as interested in examining what it’s doing as in portraying its historical subject, definitely give this a try.

Ayana Mathis, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (2012)

In the 1920s, young Hattie is one of the many American blacks who will travel from the Southern states to begin new lives in the North. A couple of years after settling in Philadelphia, Hattie has married August and given birth to twins, whom she names Philadelphia and Jubilee in optimism for the years to come – but the children die as babies. She will go on to have many more children who survive, but this is the first sign of the difficulties Hattie and her descendants will face making their way in life throughout the twentieth century.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is structured as a series of episodes, each focusing on one or more of Hattie’s children at points in history ranging from 1925 to 1980, which together create a composite portrait of the family. The emotional scope of the novel is vast, as Ayana Mathis’s characters face desire, betrayal, racism, insanity, and more besides. Perhaps most central to the book are issues of living up to (or failing to meet) the expectations of others, and what binds (or may separate) the members of a family.

Mathis moves between many different viewpoints (third- and first-person) with fluency and ease. Her characters are always vivid, such as Six, whose violent outburst as a child becomes channelled into an unstoppable religious fervour (“The Word collected in his mouth like a pile of pebbles and pushed itself out through his lips”); and Bell, who couldn’t have foreseen herself living in squalor and wasting away from tuberculosis (“She’d taken such pleasure in saying no to [two marriage] proposals…Women who married men like that did nothing but shop for groceries and nearly die of boredom. But here I am dying anyway”).

And through it all is Hattie herself, from age 17 to age 71, who wants the best life for her family, but doesn’t always get it. It would be wrong to say that her determination never flags, or that she sacrifices herself entirely – Mathis’s portrait is too complex to sum up in that kind of way. But Hattie’s personality, and those of her children, fill the book to its very end.

Any Cop?: Absolutely. This is a superb novel of character and situation – and it’s only Ayana Mathis’s debut.

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2 thoughts on “Bookmunch reviews: HHhH and The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

  1. Pingback: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis | Iris on Books

  2. Pingback: My favourite books of 2013 | Follow the Thread

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