Thursday, 27 July 2017

The Haunting of Henry Twist by Rebecca F John


published 2017

Haunting of Henry Twist 2


[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.


Haunting of Henry Twist 1 [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.

Haunting of Henry Twist 3


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.
























17 comments:

  1. OH, this does sound atmospheric, Moira. And I do like books that give the reader a sense of place and time, as it seems this one does. I'm normally not one to enjoy the present tense in a novel, but if the story works, that's what matters most, and this one sounds intriguing.

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    1. Yes, Margot, I too am never too sure about present tense. But it worked in this case: a lovely, well-written book.

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  2. It's the coats I'm looking at. I'm reminded of a friend's black velvet coat with a big brown fur dollar. It was fitted.

    In college, I'd borrow it from her and wear it and later when I lived with her and a friend in Boston. I was sad to see that coat go.

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    1. I know - I love that coat in the first picture. I suppose we don't do fur trimming so much now, but that is one splendid outfit...

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  3. That's "fur collar." All I needed was a black felt hat like the one at the top and I would have gone back in decades.

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    1. Sounds fab! Do you have a photo of yourself as a memento?

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  4. This sounds really appealing. I also find the class system during the 20s interesting and agree that a couple in Henry and Ruby's class would likely not be invited to parties with the BYTs. Only in a Miss Pettigrew way, perhaps.

    I have a picture of my mother in a similar coat, but the fur was only on the collar. It was in the late 30s though. Apparently, it was taken by a street photographer which was a thing then? She looks very glamorous -- my mom was very photogenic, tall for generation and thin -- she could easily have been a model. The only thing out of place is my Aunt Margaret, her youngest sibling, who was a gangly young girl.

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    1. The book does give another angle on those Bright Young Things - it's neither condemning or loving them, and sees them from a different angle.
      Yes, street photographers were quite a thing then, when people were less likely to have a camera of their own (and the current phone business was unimaginable!)

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  5. No photos from college unfortunately or my year in Boston, except for two in warm weather.

    Now this reminds me that when I was a young child and we lived in Greenwich Village, the man upstairs was a furrier and he brought home furs for his spouse.

    I remember trying on a fox stole with the head and paws intact! How awful I think now. I don't think these types of furs are made anymore. I haven't seen any for decades.

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  6. And now I remember when I was a young child living in NYC, my parents dressed me in a forest green coat and hat with brown fur trim. And it came with a fur muff! I must have been so happy to trot around with that outfit on and the muff. Haven't seen one of those in decades either.

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    1. Ha, I think I must be about your age. One time at Sunday mass, when we were very young, my little sister exclaimed loudly "Mommy, that lady is wearing a dog on her shoulders."

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    2. Meant to add...
      Along with pettipants, I also had a muff. My sisters and I have rabbit fur muffs with those hats that were like a wide band over your head that tied under your chin in matching rabbit fur. Not as practical in Los Angeles, as they would have been in NYC, but I loved to brush the muff against my face. I don't think I've seen any in 50 years!

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    3. I am loving reading both your reminsicences! Foxfurs were very fashionable here in the past, but not any more. It always seemed surprising that they would still have the faces and paws on...

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  7. I think I can safely pass on this one thanks. Glad you enjoyed though.

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  8. No, that poor fox on the stole had little black beady eyes and a real face and paws with claws. I think I was a bit afraid of it as it was realistic looking.

    And I thought why would these older folks foist a real dead box around a child's neck? It was a big eerie.

    Then my mother had a beautiful black seal coat, so soft. But years later she had it made into a coat lining. I gave her a hard time years later about wearing seal, but she was not perturbed in the slightest.

    So glad no one wears fox furs like that any more and I never see seal coats in New York.

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    1. I know - one of those things that as a child you think it doesn't make sense, but perhaps adults know better. And then you grow up and think, No, the childview is right, it is weird.

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