What makes reading novels such a rapturous experience for me is the way stories can connect the particular with the infinite. When an author uses the right form of telling to bring me on a character’s journey which becomes my own it’s tremendously liberating. I feel simultaneously free from myself and more capable of inhabiting my life. I don’t read novels for answers; I read to share in the mystery of being. Samantha Hunt’s powerful novel “Mr Splitfoot” raises many questions and leaves them magnificently suspended in the air. I finished reading it feeling enormously moved and pondering many issues of faith, family and meaning. It’s a beautiful tale told with precision and an accomplished feeling of symmetry.
“Mr Splitfoot” is the story of an orphaned girl named Ruth raised by a psychopathic “Father” who leads a ragtag foster home he calls ‘The Love of Christ!’ where “children are a rainbow of deformities.” From the age of five, Ruth shares a profound connection with a boy named Nat. The pair call themselves “sisters” and grow to be con-artists who claim to communicate with the dead for a fee. (The title character Mr Splitfoot is the fictional intermediary spirit Nat calls upon to speak to the dead.) Years later, Ruth’s niece Cora embarks on an extended journey by foot for an unknown destination. She is pregnant and longs for a connection with her mysterious aunt. Like many of us, she is addicted to using the internet through her phone and finds it hard to let it go: “I want to push little buttons quickly. I want information immediately. I want to post pictures of Ruth and me smiling in the sun. I want people to like me, like me, like me.” Yet, she temporary breaks from this for an ascetic life walking to better understand what she really wants, engage in a series of surprising adventures and discover a link to her aunt’s past.
One of the greatest things about this novel is Hunt’s radical redefinition of family. Characters aren’t locked into relationships with the groups they are born into, but choose their family based on their personalities and needs. There is something so disarming about a young boy and girl who call each other sisters, yet they radically make this word their own regardless of gender-distinctions. Equally, Cora comes to think of Ruth as the father of her baby. This feels like a way of breaking down traditional barriers so people aren't inhibited by the expectations of family roles and can become whatever they need to be.
It's particularly effective how Hunt describes the experience of pregnancy and how it changes the people around the expectant mother. Cora finds that “Now that my belly shows, I’m public property. Strangers speak to me all the time.” It's disturbing the way people project onto Cora all their own problems as if the fact of her pregnancy should permit a greater intimacy. It's touching the feelings Cora expresses while expecting her baby, that “Pregnancy is a locked door in my stomach, all the weight of life and death and still no way to know it.” It's as if this experience should naturally provide a number of answers about life to her, but she feels just as uncertain as she always has.
The novel also says some profound things about how faith and fantasy equally play a part in our lives. Cults run throughout this book with their fanatic leaders' belief systems transparently based on their desire for money or power. Yet, Smith presents people's personal beliefs as something that naturally occur as a way of coping with life. One character named Sheresa remarks: “History holds up one side of our lives and fiction the other. Mother, father. Birth, death, and in between, that’s where you find religion. That’s where you find art, science, engineering. It’s where things get made from belief and memory.” It's through a constant interplay between fact and fiction that we find motivation to make decisions on how to proceed forward.
At times the way in which Hunt uses language reminded me of Ali Smith’s writing as she often plays on words’ double meanings. For instance, the word 'Comet' is used as a rock hurtling through outer space that a cult leader wishes will hit his followers that he can’t control and it’s also the name of a cleaning product an obsessive man uses as a drug. Both meanings of the word entwine in a surprising way to make an entirely new meaning. The style of writing is similar to Ali Smith as it often loops surreal experiences into scenes treating them as equally valid as mundane reality. The character of Cora also feels like a quintessential Smith character as she is often funny, curious and savvy. Yet, Hunt’s story has a much more American feel to it with its skilful presentation of individuals struggling with issues of identity amidst the influence of cults with extreme beliefs.
Recently, I went to see David Mitchell and Kazuo Ishiguro in conversation where they spent quite a while discussing ghosts (which are prevalent in Mitchell's most recent novel “Slade House”). They remarked on how ghost stories have the ability to tap into fears which lay dormant within people so their response to ghost stories seems to come naturally as if it's a story they already know. There is a fascinating and poignant conversation about ghost stories between Cora and her lover at the beginning of this novel which becomes a ghost story itself. The dead have such a presence in people's minds many of them are complicit in Ruth and Nat's cons because they want so badly to believe: “People who don’t believe in the dead are still affected by them.” It leads Cora to eventually remark that “every story is a ghost story, even mine.”
“Mr Splitfoot” is a deeply moving novel that creatively approaches many serious questions with flair and humour. I was totally captivated like a boy being told a ghost story late at night.