When I read the title of the book and saw the image on the cover, I immediately expected The Haunting of Henry Twist to be a Gothic tale. Yet, without giving too much away, the haunting referred to in the title is less a paranormal presence and more the psychological aftermath of trauma and tragedy.
Set in London in 1926, Henry Twist is a newly widowed father. Ruby, Henry’s wife, died not too long before the start of the novel when she was hit by a bus when crossing the road. She was heavily pregnant but the baby, Libby, survived. The book begins at Ruby’s funeral where it soon becomes clear that Henry is not coping well with his loss Matilda, Ruby’s best friend, is overly kind to him, and several mourners suspect that she has feelings for him. When Henry sees a mysterious man standing outside his house in the shadows, he begins to wonder who he might be and questions whether it’s the ghost of Ruby back to either look over him or to haunt him. When Henry talks to the man, he discovers that the stranger, Jack Turner, has lost his memory and only remembers Henry’s name and his own. The pair immediately become very close, prompting Henry to further question whether Jack might be possessed by Ruby’s ghost. It soon becomes clear that Jack has many secrets and Matilda, jealous of the men’s’ relationship, is determined to find out who Jack really is and to destroy him.
From the beginning, Henry is coming to terms with losing his wife and becoming a single father in a society where single fathers are highly unusual. He’s also struggling with the trauma of what he experienced as a soldier in WWI and, in this sense, he represents the struggles faced by British society and masculinity after the Great War. His grief and his search for his new identity, represents the nation’s struggle to deal with its own collective trauma.
This search for a new collective identity and the economic prosperity of Jazz era London led many people to become Bright Young Things, the name given to socialites who became known for their frivolous lifestyles, their drinking, and their drug taking. As part of this social group, Henry, Ruby, and Matilda were accustomed to all-night parties, fancy dress parties, and treasure hunts. But after Ruby’s death, Jack accompanies Henry to parties, essentially becoming a replacement for Ruby. The book shows us that the Jazz era may not have been as innocent and care free as it appears but instead might be one of immense denial. Although this book is set in London, the characters’ lifestyles reminded me of The Great Gatsby in its critique of materialism and individualism. And the relationship between Henry and Jack is also reminiscent of the one between Jay Gatsby and Nick Carraway in Fitzgerald’s novel as the characters try to bury their memories of war through alcohol and drugs.
The novel is an exploration of unhealthy and unfulfilled relationships and, as none are explored in any great detail, I felt that the novel was slightly underwhelming. None of the relationships, including the central one between Henry and Jack or even the one between Henry and his baby daughter struggle to emotionally connect us with the characters.
I also found the female characters in the book to be highly problematic. The only female character that is developed in any way is Matilda but she is portrayed as a desperate woman who openly flirts with Henry in front of all their friends. When she finds out that her husband is having an affair and that Henry is romantically involved with Jack, she immediately seeks to ruin Jack by investigating his private life and exposing his secrets, thereby portraying the feminine as vindictive and spiteful. Another particularly problematic female character is Sybil, a fortune-teller that Henry visits to figure out whether Ruby has come back from the dead. She is portrayed as a con artist who is taking advantage of Henry’s grief. In addition, like several other characters in the book, Sybil appears very briefly and doesn’t contribute much to the book, which made me question why she was even there. With a title that implicates a supernatural presence, so much more could be been done with this character and many others yet they are not utilised in any way.
Despite its large collection of very minor characters, I found the novel much slower in pace than what I’m used to reading and I found myself skipping over chunks of text. Yet, John’s writing is often beautiful and lyrical and the book was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award in 2017:
He lies with his arms behind his head, hands folded under his neck in an inversion of prayer, and watches the fluid seesaw of long branches against the paling sky. Around him, music plays on, words and laughter and sighs slotting into its happy rhythm, but he has ceased to hear any of it. He looks to the sky. Far above him, a distant bird, elevated by invisible twitches of feather, weaves through shrinking patches of clean blue space; the clouds stroll steadily along on their endless carousel rotation. And above the clouds … Heaven, perhaps.
Overall, the book is ambiguous on many levels: the nature of the haunting of the title is never fully revealed. But what the book does do very well is portray a Jazz age London that is cold, uncaring, and frivolous and perhaps this is why so much of the book isn’t developed in great detail. Perhaps John’s intention is to portray the confusion and disembodiment that accompany a catastrophic event such as WW1 or the loss of a spouse.
The Haunting of Henry Twist is published by Serpent’s Tail – you can purchase a copy here.
Reviewed by Deborah Lee Singer
Rebecca F. John
Rebecca F. John was born in 1986, and grew up in Pwll, a small village on the South Wales coast. Her short stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4. In 2014, she was highly commended in the Manchester Fiction Prize. In 2015, her short story ‘The Glove Maker’s Numbers’ was shortlisted for the Sunday TimesEFG Short Story Award. She is the winner of the PEN International New Voices Award 2015, and the British participant of the 2016 Scritture Giovani project. Her first short story collection, Clown’s Shoes, is available now through Parthian and she lives in Swansea with her three dogs. The Haunting of Henry Twist is her first novel, and is shortlisted for the 2017 Costa First Novel Award.
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