‘Everybody's got dead people’

Samantha Hunt, Mr Splitfoot

Corsair, 336pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781472151599

reviewed by Jason DeYoung

All stories are ghost stories, we are told in Samantha Hunt’s new novel, Mr Splitfoot, a book that uniquely argues for and against belief in anything beyond our world. Set in upstate New York, Mr Splitfoot is part ghost story and part road trip, with forays into religious cults, con artistry, meteorite mapping, abandonment and motherhood. It is a smart, well-structured novel with Dickensian twists and an equally knotted cast of characters. I could deploy with a straight face descriptions like ‘gripping’ and ‘page-turner’ for Mr Splitfoot, because Samantha Hunt deftly keeps the mystery of the novel a secret and the reader yearning to know.

Mr Splitfoot has a dual structure: one part is set in the past, the other in the present day, and the chapters toggle between these two timelines. When the book opens, we meet Nat and Ruth, two orphans at the Love of Christ! Foster Home, Farm, and Mission run by an abusive zealot, Father Arthur. Despite Nat’s gender, Ruth insists they are ‘sisters.’ Ruth’s real sister, Eleanor, recently aged out of the Love of Christ!, and Ruth has been lonesome ever since. She and Nat grow up together sharing the same bed, the same toothbrush, clinging together, we are told, ‘[like] a bundled corpus callosum.’

In the basement of Love of Christ!, Nat preforms a game called ‘Mr Splitfoot.’ Through a few erratic head movements and sound effects, he contacts the dead parents of the other kids at the Love of Christ!. The kids are all too willing to give Nat their few dollars or trifling positions for a chance to hear their mother or father speak, to hear them say that if they could they would be with them, and that they are loved even from beyond the grave. It’s a scam, but the kids believe it, and so does Ruth. A local con man, Mr Bell, gets wind of Nat’s ‘abilities’ and starts marketing him to others who are seeking answers from deceased loved ones.

The present-day story is about Cora and Ruth. Cora is a dysfunctional young woman, bored with life, obsessed with social media and sleeping with a married man named Lord, whose wife is terminally ill. Here’s how we first meet Cora, at her computer:

I compare prices on a couple pairs of shoes, break off the corner of a nut-n-strawberry-flavored fruit breakfast bar. Overhead a fluorescent flickers. I order the more expensive pair and experience a feeling of euphoria. Having made the correct shoe choice, I now understand the nature of mystery in the universe. I now belong to a tribe of shod people. Waves of enthusiasm and moral righteousness inflate me straight up to heaven.

Unpleasant, empty, a touch soulless, Cora seems to have had experienced a lot and nothing at all at the same time. Her mother is Ruth’s sister Eleanor, who raised Cora alone.

In the early pages of the novel, Cora discovers she is pregnant by Lord. He doesn’t want the complication of having a child with a mistress and tries to give Cora a strange, homemade abortion, which is unsuccessful. On the same night that Cora plans to tell her mother that she will keep the baby, Ruth shows up unannounced after being gone for nearly 17 years.

The engine of this novel is the walk that Cora and Ruth take. When Ruth arrives at Cora’s home, she’s mute, and it’s through a series of gesture and facial cues that she communicates her desire for Cora to follow. The walk is long and pointed north, and along the way they meet other orphans and women who made orphans of their children. It is obvious that Ruth has a destination in mind, though she cannot tell Cora where they are going. Because the reader is privy to the backstory, it’s clear that the two are headed toward Nat.

To go much further would begin to give away the novel, and there are such great twists and teases that permeate it: notably, is Ruth a ghost or not? Who is the mysterious Zeke, who essentially buys Ruth from the Love of Christ!? Who is the cripple following Ruth and Cora on their journey?

Thematically, Mr Splitfoot mixes three concerns: orphanhood, motherhood and the emptiness of technology. We are told over and over again that being a mother makes one a dealer in death, and I lost count of the number of characters in the book who are orphans. Pregnancy and the walk with her aunt changes Cora. As the novel progresses, she distances herself further from the internet (primarily through the loss of her cell phone), and the tone of her voice changes, becoming less snarky, purifying into something more authentic. We go from ‘When I'm home, I'll post something about this crazy walk I took with my strange aunt. That will be cool. I snap a selfie in the motel’ to:

We have a definitive number of steps remaining, a countable number, and then I don’t know what. A bed or a couch. A bathtub. A baby. The end. Or else a new start. A house near the Falls for Ruth and Eleanor and me and the baby. That’d be nice, to live with them, to be near the Falls. It’s important to live near water. I won’t go back to what I was before I started walking. I don’t want a lot of rubbish to smother things as quite as Ruth, intelligent as this child, kind and complicated as Eleanor.

Samantha Hunt seems to be saying something about the ghostliness of our present age – that life through a computer screen gives us only the spectre of what ‘real life’ could be, and engaging with other people and giving our bodies over to life (or service) will rectify this meaninglessness. I’m sure you’ve read these sentiments before; I know I have, and it reminds me of what Andre Gide once said: ‘Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again.’ And so, Hunt says it again. It’s a good reminder, and because she gives it to us in such a remarkable and rich narrative – one that’s original and fun to boot – we can’t help but nod our heads in appreciation.