Brilliant historical novel reminiscent of The Great Gatsby

The Haunting of Henry Twist by Rebecca F. John

The funeral has become something resembling a party: the drummer turns his sticks between nimble fingers; the trumpeter arches backwards and dips forward, following the undulations of his notes; couples twizzle and flick their feet to the stop-time beat, dancing the black bottom. And between dances, guests tip flutes of champagne into open mouths and kiss each other’s cheeks before swapping stories about a young woman who has been dead for exactly seven days.

London, 1926. Henry Twist’s heavily pregnant wife is hit by a bus and killed, though miraculously the baby survives. Henry is wracked with grief and left alone to care for his new daughter. But one evening, a man steps out of the shadows and addresses Henry by name. The man says he has lost his memory, but that his name is Jack. Henry is both afraid of and drawn to Jack, and the more time they spend together, the more Henry sees that this man has echoes of his dead wife. Henry begins to wonder, has his wife returned to him?

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up The Haunting of Henry Twist, knowing only that it had been shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award in 2017. What I wasn’t expecting was for it to be the best book I’ve read so far this year.

The Haunting of Henry Twist is a beautiful novel that has so much to say about love, grief, fear and happiness. With its 1920s setting, its cast of Bright Young Things and its three-dimensional characters, it bears comparisons to The Great Gatsby.

Henry Twist is a wonderful character. Formerly a soldier in the trenches of World War I, his experiences in the mud watching his friends die have irrevocably changed him and formed who he is as a man, driven by fear and terrified of losing the people he loves. He is consumed by memories of his wife after she is hit by a bus and killed. Then Jack walks into his life, offering the hope that maybe he doesn’t have to say goodbye after all.

Despite the title, this is not just Henry’s story. We also follow Henry’s close friends: Grayson and Matilda, whose marriage is beginning to fracture under the weight of Matilda’s unrequited love for Henry, and Monty, an older man who surrounds himself with Bright Young Things so he doesn’t have to feel the relentless marching of time.

The atmosphere and sense of history in this novel is fantastic. In the years after the First World War everyone is struggling with the weight of all they have lived through, while trying their hardest to celebrate their hard-won freedom and have a good time. Bright Young Things flit through gardens lit by candlelight and decorated with fabric swings draped from trees, but beneath it all is the quiet acknowledgement of all the pain and suffering they have gone through to get to this point. Trying to have fun is not as easy as it seems.

The writing is also brilliant. John writes about character with piercing insight, so that they become living, breathing creations standing at your shoulder as you read about their lives. She captures their sense of dissatisfaction, their desperate, clawing search for happiness, with wonderful language and a real sense of empathy. At times the metaphors and descriptions can feel slightly muddled, but this can be forgiven for the overall strength of the writing.

This is a fantastic book and one that I highly, highly recommend.


Books of the year 2017

  1. The Angel and the Cad by Geraldine Roberts

This non-fiction book explores the life of Catherine Tylney Long, the wealthiest heiress in Regency England and beloved ‘angel’ of the public. Ignoring the warnings of her closest confidantes, she married for love, her choice the charming but selfish William Wellesley Pole. Roberts tells a fascinating story of the first celebrity couple, whose every action was detailed in newspaper gossip columns. Catherine was a fascinating woman; fiercely intelligent and beloved by everyone she met, she nevertheless had a fatal blind spot when it came to her husband. Although the pace occasionally flags, there are enough twists and turns to keep you enthralled.

‘Catherine captured the hearts of the public because fame and fortune did not turn her head; in fact she remained so unpretentious and sweet-natured that she became known as ‘the angel’.’

  1. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

This enchanting fairy tale is set in the wilderness of northern Russia, where old beliefs in sorcery and folklore are gradually being ousted by the church. Young Vasya is the only one who can see the house spirits that guard her home, and sense the growing forces of dark magic in the woods. With a beautiful, otherworldly atmosphere, lyrical writing and a feisty heroine, this fairy tale for adults has shades of Angela Carter and is completely gripping.

‘All my life I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come’. I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.’

  1. The Good People by Hannah Kent

Set in Ireland in 1825, this bleak but beautiful novel follows widow Nóra’s attempts to discover what is wrong with her young grandson Micheál, who cannot speak or walk. Kent’s writing is startling and moving and she effortlessly creates an immersive world in which folk beliefs control all aspects of everyday life. Uncomfortable and heart-wrenching at times it may be, but Kent succeeds brilliantly at doing just what historical fiction is supposed to do: plunging you into an entirely different world that somehow feels familiar.

Alarm ran through her and she looked down at the child, his hair copper in the firelight. She was grateful that he slept. The boy’s difference did not show so much when he was asleep. The keel of his limbs slackened, and there was no telling the dumb tongue in his head.’

  1. In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant

Dunant’s latest novel picks up where her first novel about the infamous Borgias, Blood and Beauty, left off. Rodrigo sits the Papal throne as Alexander VI, Lucrezia is travelling to the home of her soon-to-be third husband, and Cesare is marching through Italy on a campaign of conquest. Dunant is a fantastic writer and effortlessly blends fiction and historical fact to create a visceral and entertaining read, plunging you headfirst into 16th century Italy.

‘The speed and ferocity of the rise of the Borgia family have taken everyone by surprise. Of course Rome has had unscrupulous popes before, men who quietly favoured the fortunes of their ‘nephews’ or ‘nieces’. But this, this is different.’

  1. The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

Not only does The Silent Companions win the prize for most beautiful cover of 2017, but the gothic ghost story within is also wonderfully atmospheric. Set in 1866, newly widowed Elsie is sent to see out her pregnancy at her late husband’s crumbling estate with only her husband’s awkward cousin for company. Or so she thinks. Billed as a ghost story inspired by Shirley Jackson and Susan Hill, I can confirm that this truly chilling tale is creepy enough to send a shiver down your spine on even the warmest days.

‘She had seen things beyond the comprehension of his small, scientific brain. Things he would deny were possible until they stole up beside him and pressed their worn, splintered hands against his.’

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  1. The Dry by Jane Harper

An alternative to all the Scandi-noir novels populating the shelves of crime fiction came in the form of Jane Harper’s The Dry. A masterful debut novel set in a small town in Australia, we follow Aaron Falk as he returns to his hometown for the funeral of a friend, who seemingly committed suicide after murdering his wife and son. The searing heat and tense, claustrophobic atmosphere leap from the pages and the mystery at the heart of the novel will keep you gripped until the very end.

‘The space was the thing that hit them first. There was so much of it. There was enough to drown in. To look out and see not another soul between you and the horizon could be a strange and disturbing sight.’

  1. Lost Boy by Christina Henry

I bought this Peter Pan prequel completely at random, unaware at the time that I was picking up what would become one of my favourite books of the year. You might think you know the story, but Henry’s version has little in common with the Disney film; this fairy tale retelling has edges sharp enough to cut and the Peter Pan in this book is one of the most frightening characters I’ve ever read. Reminiscent of Lord of the Flies, with its claustrophobic atmosphere and threatening undercurrents, this fantastic story will plunge you headfirst into a horrifying world of blood and loyalty, twisting and turning as it hurtles toward its thrilling, inexorable end.

Those who didn’t listen so well or weren’t happy as the singing birds in the trees found themselves in the fields of the Many-Eyed without a bow or left near the pirate camp or otherwise forgotten, for Peter had no time for boys who didn’t want his adventures.

  1. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Sunday Times bestseller, shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and winner of WH Smith’s fiction book of the year, this is one of those books that you might think has been overwhelmed by critical praise only to fall short when you finally get around to reading it. You would be wrong. This quirky novel about a woman who has barricaded herself behind the words ‘I’m fine’ manages to be both heart-wrenching and laugh-out-loud funny. At first I admit I found it hard to get along with the rather socially inept Eleanor, but the more you get to know her the more you’ll fall in love with her story, and you’ll be bereft when you turn the final page.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? And if a woman who’s wholly alone occasionally talks to a pot plant, is she certifiable? I think that it is perfectly normal to talk to oneself occasionally. It’s not as though I’m expecting a reply. I’m fully aware that Polly is a houseplant.’

  1. Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry

Parry’s debut novel is a masterclass in historical fiction. Effortlessly interweaving the story of three strangers whose lives become intertwined, the sights and sounds and smells of 19th century New York come alive on the page. The imagery and atmosphere is so rich and detailed that you’ll be surprised when you look up and find yourself in the 21st century. Add fantastic characters and a gripping story on top of that, and you have a wonderfully bizarre and unique story that will completely capture your heart.

‘We assume that our sight is reliable, that our deeds are straightforward, that our words have one meaning. But life is uncommon and strange; it is full of intricacies and odd, confounding turns. So onstage we remind them just how extraordinary the ordinary can be.’

  1. The Possessions by Sara Flannery Murphy

This is a very difficult book to categorise; it’s a mystery, thriller, romance, horror, ghost story and crime novel all in one. It is set in a future in which the Elysian Society offers its clients the chance to reconnect with their dead loved ones by channelling them through living ‘Bodies’. Edie is regarded as the best Body in the team, but everything changes when Patrick, a distraught husband, comes to speak to his drowned wife. With shades of Rebecca, The Handmaid’s Tale and with a plot like an episode of Black Mirror, this story of obsession and grief knocked me breathless and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

The first time I meet Patrick Braddock, I’m wearing his wife’s lipstick. The colour is exactly wrong for me. Deep, ripe plum, nearly purple, the type of harsh shade that beautiful women wear to prove they can get away with anything.’

New novel explores how female criminals are judged by the media

Little Deaths by Emma Flint

‘When tragedy strikes, there’s a tendency to assume that someone is different. Special. That there’s something about them that makes them the kind of person bad things happen to. Because the alternative – that bad things can happen to anyone, at any time – is unthinkable.’

New York, 1965. One morning, Ruth Malone wakes to find her two young children missing. After a desperate search, the police make a horrifying discovery. It’s every mother’s worst nightmare. But Ruth Malone is not like other mothers. Noting Ruth’s perfect make-up and provocative clothing, the empty bottles of alcohol and love letters that litter her apartment, the detectives leap to convenient conclusions. But is Ruth really capable of murder?

I was really intrigued by this book, having heard some great things about it. But, overall, the execution failed to live up to the promise of the idea.

The pace of the book was the main element that threw me off. We learn early on that Ruth is in prison, so throughout the investigation and trial there is no suspense about what is going to happen. I didn’t realise that this is partly a police procedural novel (a genre I am not particularly fond of) and that at least half the chapters are focused on a journalist named Pete who is investigating the story of the missing children, and in the process becomes obsessed with Ruth.

The writing is good, but lacks the flashes of brilliance that would have elevated this book to a truly great read. Some of the themes are really interesting and I found Ruth a sympathetic and well-written character. She cares deeply for her children but she becomes easily exasperated by them. Her life hasn’t turned out anything like she thought it would and her disappointment is, in the eyes of the media, enough to mark her out as a bad person – and possibly a murderer.

Even set in the 1960s, this book bears poignant relevance to our world today. Ruth might not be talked about and judged on social media, but in the claustrophobic working class environment where she lives, there’s always someone peeking through a net curtain and gossiping about the woman who comes home late.

If the focus had been entirely on Ruth, I think I would have enjoyed this book a lot more. Unfortunately, much of the story is focused on journalist Pete Wonicke. He is an entirely unmemorable character who quickly becomes exasperating with his unrealistic actions. I wanted to know more about Ruth, and I wanted Flint to delve further into the themes she just begins to pick at, especially the way female criminals are judged by the media.

I was also extremely disappointed by the ending. It seemed completely unconvincing and came out of the blue, and after that I was glad to put the book down.

This book definitely disappointed me, but fans of crime fiction will still find things to enjoy here. Just don’t expect it to blow your socks off.