Henry’s wife, Ruby, dies leaving him “constantly surprised” by the presence of their new-born daughter and as he grieves he finds comfort (and new love) in the mysterious Jack Turner. Set in 1926, as London recovers from World War 1, even Henry’s grief is defined by its shadow:
“Many years more will have to pass before anyone could complain or worry about anything much without feeling outrageously hypocritical.”
The Haunting of Henry Twist is a Janus-faced love story with Henry turning between grief for the loss of his wife and the possibility of new love with Jack. It is in Rebecca John’s portrayal of grief that this novel is strongest, the physical sensation of it is captured: “its brittle splinters scattered through his chest, like stitches, keeping the rest of him together.” Deranged, perhaps, by his loss (and his experiences of the War) Henry believes that Ruby “deposited some fraction of herself in Jack”. The relationship of Henry and Jack, a gay couple in the 1920s after all, has an element of psychological magic realism about it. It often feels like a fictional device that allows Rebecca John the opportunity for her intelligent, clear-eyed observation of human fragility and questioning all aspects of relationships (how we relate to family and children as well as lovers): “a person’s sanity can be bound up in the simple hint of another human being.”
This is very obviously a debut novel, in the uncertainty of its construction (and its attempts to cram in too much) alongside an enormous amount to enjoy in its characterisation and the strength of its language. Henry, as a character, is so inward, his thoughts and feelings vividly described and precisely expressed that portraying him against the background of a specific moment, London during the General Strike of 1926, makes London seem more fictionalised than Henry himself. The portrayal of a historical 1926 is overly arch, we are told of the birth of Princess Elizabeth “though they knew this child would never rule.” Though, there is always a convincing depth to the character of Jack and the tangle of his emotions.
Alongside Henry and Jack are an unhappily married couple, Grayson and Matilda (along with Grayson’s mistress) and we follow these couples as they eventually build, unconventional, families. The Haunting of Henry Twist has more ambition than it can successfully meet but it is an ambition that provides a great deal of pleasure along the way. It is most successful in offering multiple possibilities, and definitions of love: “love is something nothing more than a long succession of different degrees of pain” or, “isn’t that what love means – becoming hopeful and senseless and ridiculous at once? How else could you pour all your life into another human being?”
Any Cop?: Enjoyable, distinctively depicting a relationship, Rebecca John’s writing has an individuality that doesn’t always come off but always keeps you impressed (and interested in her future books).