[London 1926: a foggy morning. Ruby is out walking early. ]
The mist, trapped between closer buildings, spins in darker circles, and Ruby waves a gloved hand at it, as though she can persuade it to clear for her. She feels this powerful. Her heels clip-clip against the pavement. Her bright red coat flashes with each forward step. The lipstick she swept on to match it clings heavy to her lips, but it is a weight she enjoys: it reminds her of how pretty she felt this morning when Henry stood behind her in the mirror, his hands around her stomach, and winked at her as she twisted the thick ends of her hair one way then the other.
[later in the book, at Paddington station, Henry meets Ida for the first time]
‘Mr Twist?’ she asks, dipping a little to catch his eye.
Her voice is so familiar that, briefly, Henry is unwilling to lift his chin. He considers the round, shining-black toes of her shoes, the hem of her wool dress; then, slowly, the book she clasps one-handed in front her; and then, finally, her face.
commentary: This is a book it’s best to come to cold: to have no idea what genre of book is, no real idea what is going to happen - so I will try not to give too much away. It is not a spoiler to say that Ruby, the first woman above, is about to be knocked over by a bus and killed. She is pregnant, and the baby will survive. Henry, her husband, is completely devastated, but determined to keep the baby and raise her alone. Ida is Ruby’s sister, and comes from Wales to help.
The story looks back to the happy days of Henry and Ruby’s married life: they were very much in love. Henry has his memories of the First Wold War, but is also grateful to have survived. The two of them have another couple, Matilda and Grayson, as friends, and all four have been taken under the wing of a wealth, almost Gatsby-esque figure, Monty, who gives parties for the Bright Young Things of the era.
All of their stories are important, but the key thread comes with a mysterious figure who seems to be hanging round Henry. His name might be Jack Turner, and he becomes part of all their lives. But who is he exactly? And does Henry seriously think Jack might have some connection with his dead wife? The séance scene, and the medium Sybil, were very well done.
It is a mysterious and atmospheric book: Ruby in particular is very real, despite her early demise: she was the nicest character so (however foolish this may sound) it was a shame to lose her – she’s the person I wanted more of. (As she says: ‘I am not for the having, Henry Twist. I am for the wanting.’)
There is a lot about a very upmarket social life of the time:
She wants nothing more than to be one of those careless girls who swap lipsticks and husbands with smiles; who dance like nobody is watching them; who run the streets, lengths of beaded silk or chiffon or satin shining under streetlamps, teasing men and each other.
I am very interested in the class system in the UK in the 1920s, and the one lack in the book, I thought, was any clear establishing of where the characters stood there. It seemed quite unlikely that Henry and Ruby would be invited to the parties they attended – or at least I would have liked more explanation as to how they came to be part of that particular set. The patronage of Monty didn’t quite seem enough, his role was strange.
Many other aspects of 20s life come into the book, but I really don’t want to say too much about the different strands that are going to emerge. The ending (some years later) is – not as harsh as it might have been, and, again, maybe slightly unlikely.
But that is not to take away from a really excellent book, a true novel, with unexpected moments and great sentences on every page.
Ruby’s red coat is from Kristine’s photostream – it is too posh, and too small, and the model isn’t pregnant, but I was so glad to find a colour picture of a 1920s red coat that I had to use it.
Ida in her dress is also from Kristine’s photostream, as is the party scene.