Hattie Shepherd, the impassive heroine of Ayana Mathis’s punchy debut novel, is a woman for whom life will be a perpetual struggle. The mother of several offspring – the “twelve tribes” of the title – her life will be spent dealing with a string of near-Biblical challenges. The subject matter might be familiar – poverty and the legacy of slavery – but Mathis keeps her material feeling urgent and fresh.
When we first meet 17-year-old Hattie, she’s newly married and settling down in a small house in Philadelphia. Having escaped Jim Crow’s Georgia, she feels safe in the new neighbourhood feels safe, a place where women folk “did their baking early, and by noon the block smelled of the strawberry cakes they set on their windowsills to cool”. But tragedy strikes almost before she has begun. Her twin babies, Philadelphia and Jubilee, die in her arms after a bout of untreatable pneumonia. Hattie never quite recovers from the loss, becoming an increasing remote figure as “pale and silent as an iceberg”.
Although she continues to have children she knows they “did not think her a kind woman – perhaps she wasn’t... She had failed them in vital ways, but what good would it have done to spend the days hugging and kissing if there hadn’t been anything to put in their bellies. The world would not love them.”
As the following chapters unfold, Hattie’s ever-growing list of parenting afflictions proves her right. Her god-fearing son, Six, is severely burned by scalding water; daughter Cassie has something “wrong in the head”; Franklin, an alcoholic and gambler, is sent to Vietnam; Floyd, a good-looking trumpet player, struggles with his bisexuality, Billups is molested as a child; while Alice, despite marrying well, feels trapped.
This catalogue of problems sounds relentless, but Mathis’s glimmering narrative style eases the pain. With Toni Morrison as her inspiration, Marilynne Robinson as her teacher, and Oprah Winfrey as her biggest fan, the pressure on Mathis to deliver is immense. Luckily, this first-time author proves as doughty as her creation.