As a fan of US author Samantha Hunt's last novel, The Invention of Everything - a part fact, part fiction retelling of the later years of Nicolai Tesla - I grabbed Mr Splitfoot as soon as it came out. Fans of feats of electrical engineering may want to look elsewhere though, as Mr Splitfoot is an although different beast.
It features two story lines, set roughly 14 years apart. The first follows two teenagers named Ruth and Nat who - through no fault of their own - have ended up in a quasi-religious foster care facility called Love of Christ! The home is run by The Father - described by Nat as being part hippy, part psychopath - who turfs the kids out onto the street on their 18th birthday because he can no longer claim any welfare payments on them. Nat claims to be able to contact the dead with the aid of a spirit guide named Mr Splitfoot, so with Ruth the pair begin to hold séances in the home's basement - partly for fun and partly for spending money.
As Nat and Ruth near their 18th birthdays, the pair grow concerned about how they will survive once they have to leave Love of Christ! but their hand is forced when they learn that The Father has made a crazy deal to sell Ruth into marriage with a local weirdo named Zeke. The teen pair then run off with a local conman named Mr Bell who witnesses one of the basement séances and believes he can take the act on the road and make some bucks off the local hicks.
Now it sounds here like I am telling you the whole plot, but this is really only the set up from the first couple of chapters. It is also, remember, only one of two stories that run through the novel in alternating chapters. The second story takes place 14 years later as a now older Ruth leads her 21-year-old niece on a mysterious trek across the roads of upstate New York. The niece, named Cora, is somehow convinced to leave her job, her home and her mother and go on this walk despite the fact that she is heavily pregnant and Ruth also now seems to be completely mute.
From there the novel becomes a kind of split-screen road movie with Nat, Ruth and Mr Bell driving around - in what I guess is the late 1990s - holding séances (are they real or fake?), while second narrative has Cora growing increasingly frustrated by wordless Ruth and their endless march.
That's the set-up - and it sounds reasonably intriguing - but I have to admit that while reading Mr Splitfoot (over halfway through in fact) I realised that I wasn't really that engaged so much in either story. I tried to focus on what I knew of the plot and the motives of the characters and came away without a great deal of anything. The first narrative of Ruth, Nat and Mr Bell scamming rural folk with tales of from beyond the grave, is by far the more interesting of the two, but you never really understand what these people are trying to achieve - aside from just liberating cash from gullible rubes. The second narrative of Cora and Ruth hiking roughly parallel along the Eerie Canal to some unnamed location to the north, just seems aimless as you read it. You have such few details to hang the plot together with, and it doesn't help that Ruth is totally mute doesn't give anyone a clue where they are going.
Having said that, it is worth persevering to the end - which is extremely satisfying. Once I finished the novel, it is difficult not to look back and view it as this perfectly formed snow-globe of a novel the exists in it's own well-crafted universe that hangs together remarkably well no matter how hard you try to shake it up.
I enjoyed the religious metaphors and themes that run throughout its pages - or perhaps anti-religious themes would be more precise as so many of God-fearing folk encountered here are little more than narcissistic charlatans.
Hunt is an excellent writer, with real talent for character development, dialogue and atmosphere. There are lots of story links to discover that span the 14-year-gap that separates the twin narratives - many of which will may only be uncovered upon a second reading. That perhaps is the magic of Mr Splitfoot - a novel whose real charms are only largely evident once you finish the final page.
Mr Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt is published by Random House. ($34.99.)