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.