Book review: Mr. Splitfoot, Samantha Hunt

I picked up Mr. Splitfoot because I’m a Black Tapes fan, but I kept reading it because it’s outstanding. If you like vaguely unsettling fantasy (or is it?) with split narratives and interesting characters and dark things under the surface, I think you’ll dig Mr. Splitfoot. If you don’t, well, I don’t know what to tell you, other than that you are probably in the wrong place.

Mr. Splitfoot is about Ruth and Nat, a pair of orphans who live in a strange group home run by a guy who is decidedly creepy, has invented his own religious setup, and very clearly profits from the state’s disbursements for foster children. Ruth is forced to grow up alone after her sister ages out, and she develops a fierce connection to Nat, treating him as her new sister, with the two living in each others’ pockets so much that when she finds her way out, she takes Nat with her.

But it’s also about Cora, Ruth’s niece, who met her aunt once as a young child and then didn’t see her again until she appeared silent and hulking in her life, dragging Cora along on a strange walking journey to show her something important, though she refuses to say what it is. She’ll know it when she finds it, and so will the reader.

These narratives are presented in parallel. We see Ruth and Nat growing up, leaving the house when Ruth marries a con man and coconspirator who helps them escape from the group home, and getting themselves involved in a rather tangled situation with him. We also jump far into the future, with Cora meeting an older and wiser Ruth. As the book alternates between settings, we start to see how the stories draw closer and closer together until they collide.

I can’t tell you too much more than that without spoiling some fun and interesting things for you, but I think that gives you enough to be getting on with — a sense, at least, of the fundamental setting and underpinning of Mr. Splitfoot. So where, you might ask, do the title and the fantasy part come in? That’s an excellent question, and it starts with Ruth, Nat, and the con they run convincing people that they can talk to the dead…with the assistance of a mysterious stranger named Mr. Splitfoot. Can Nat talk to the dead? Is he making it up? Does he have a contact in the spirit world that only speaks to him intermittently? These are the kinds of blurry questions the book strives to get at, and it does so in a sneaky, backhanded, well-constructed way.

The language in Mr. Splitfoot is pretty sparse, simple, and clean, keeping the focus on the story. That doesn’t mean it’s stark or plain, though. There’s a lot embedded in Hunt’s prose and there are all sorts of things to explore when it comes to how she constructed the book, how the tone shifts as the narrative changes, how you can learn a lot about the setting on the basis of how she employs language. When stories are told through parallel events like this, it’s interesting to see how and why authors choose to differentiate, and in this case, the language mutates from section to section, staying thematically consistent but reading very differently.

This is also a story with lots of little nooks and crannies. There are questions that will not be answered. There are answers that have no questions. There are rich, well-fleshed, complicated characters who flash by in the space of a few pages, at most, before dancing away, never to be seen again. It’s hard to build incidental characters well enough to make them have some substance, but not so well that they distract from the narrative. When you get into stories about journeys, that’s a pressing problem, because you could end up with a massive cast of useless hangers-on, but Hunt didn’t. She struck that delightful balance of giving me enough information to feel like I knew people, without so much that I got pulled out of the story.

The main characters themselves are twisty and sinuous and complex. No one really comes out looking great, some people find meaning in the pages, others lose it, and along the way, their interactions with each other shape their surrounding experiences and their future. This is a super character driven book, which makes it very much my jam, but what you may not realise is that the plot is briskly buzzing away in the background, waiting for the perfect moment to leap out and pounce, taking you by surprise. While the biggest twist in the story is pretty predictable, that’s not necessarily a bad thing — you don’t have to distract yourself with anticipation because you get to relax and see how Hunt manages it, and that’s much  more enjoyable.

Image: Mule Deer Track, Bryant Olsen, Flickr