Ayana Mathis' debut novel, "The Twelve Tribes of Hattie," generated plenty of chatter when Oprah Winfrey selected it for her book club this month. No surprise there. But few noted what a curious selection it is.
Yes, it's a multigenerational story about an African-American family, a subject that's firmly in the wheelhouse of a literary kingmaker who has introduced Toni Morrison to millions. Yet "Hattie" has few companions in contemporary fiction. It's not quite a novel and not quite a collection of linked stories. Hattie, its central figure, is a relatively obscured and not particularly likable character. And Mathis experiments broadly with flashback and perspective in ways that defeat many experienced writers, let alone first-timers. It's not simply a sensible Oprah pick; it's a remarkably well turned proof that the novel-in-stories can transcend the genre's contrivances.
The "tribes" of the title are Hattie's 11 children and granddaughter, each of whom is the subject of a chapter. The opening story, set in 1925, establishes Mathis' broad ambition and command of emotional detail. Desperate to save her dying infant twins from pneumonia in her Philadelphia apartment, Hattie feverishly pleads for a neighbor's help, and her mind races back to her family's escape from Georgia, where her father was killed by a group of white men. "All of those souls, escaped from the South, were at this very moment glowing with promise in the wretched winters of the cities of the North," Mathis writes. The line encapsulates a struggle that will last decades: Liberation from more violent racism, but lives shot through with constant frustration.
Still, Mathis' stories stress individuality, not symphonic commentaries on the Great Migration. Her son Floyd is a traveling jazz trumpeter who awakens to his homosexuality, a realization Mathis treats both tenderly and as a kind of shock. Hattie's husband, August, is a longtime gambler and philanderer, and by 1951 Hattie works up the nerve to leave. His obliviousness to the damage he's done is encapsulated in a funny, sad line: "he needed Hattie to come along and solve the problem of Hattie having left him."
Hattie is rarely central to the individual chapters: She is, as her granddaughter thinks, "like a lake of smooth, silvered ice, under which nothing could be seen or known." Yet unlike a weak novel-in-stories like Elizabeth Strout's "Olive Kitteridge," where the woman of the title routinely becomes a clumsy plot device, Hattie has a fearsome, complicated presence. Her pain lives through each of her children -- sometimes subtly and sometimes more pronounced, but always there.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Washington, D.C.