Despite its title, Rebecca John’s The Haunting of Henry Twist isn’t a ghost story in the traditional sense but it does have an ethereal feel to it, and is likely to haunt you long after finishing it.
London, 1926: Henry Twist’s heavily pregnant wife leaves home to meet a friend. On the way, she is hit by a bus and killed, though miraculously the baby survives. Henry is left with nothing but his new daughter – a single father in a world without single fathers. He hurries the baby home, terrified that she’ll be taken from him. Racked with guilt and fear, he stays away from prying eyes, walking her through the streets at night, under cover of darkness.
But one evening, a strange man steps out of the shadows and addresses Henry by name. The man says that 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. His mannerisms, some things he says … And so Henry wonders, has his wife returned to him? Has he conjured Jack himself from thin air? Or is he in the grip of a sophisticated con man? Who really sent him?
Ruby Twist’s story is told in flashback after the first chapter in The Haunting of Henry Twist but she still stamps her presence on the whole book, as Henry grapples with her sudden death and his subsequent grief. Ruby’s friends feel her loss keenly too and it’s moving to discover what it is they miss about her.
Ruby’s ghost doesn’t waft about their home, unwilling to move on. But hints of her resurface in Jack, which is considerably more disconcerting. Despite his physicality, Jack’s a hard character to pin down: he often feels more will-o’-the-wisp than human and you question whether his role is sinister or benign.
Significant scenes take place under cover of night, such as Henry’s nocturnal rambles with his baby to avoid detection and Monty’s garden parties, which Henry and his friends attend, but that are held for the benefit of the Bright Young Things, who flicker and flare up like 1920s versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s cohort of muddling mechanics, mischievous Puck, and Titania and Oberon’s fairy attendants.
To balance out this otherworldliness, Rebecca John gives us Ruby’s Welsh roots; upstairs neighbours who bring some comfort and sense of normality when Henry’s first starting out as a single parent; the simple rhythm and routine of daily life with a baby, and that larger one of the city continuing around them.
As we learn more about Henry and his friends, we see how his grief and their own forces them all to appraise their lives. We discover there are secrets and grievances, jealousies and understandable cracks in what at first appears to be a close-knit group. Sympathies may sway but Rebecca John cleverly causes these to shift throughout The Haunting of Henry Twist and these flaws only make you long for Henry to find his way through. That, and you resolve to be kinder to people, especially the Matildas of this world.
The Haunting of Henry Twist is as much about love as it is about loss and grief: the people who burn so brightly, they sear themselves onto our very souls, and how much we open ourselves up to others and the possibilities that accompany them. Rebecca John’s measured, rhythmic description lulls you into the gentle pace of The Haunting of Henry Twist, quietly coaxing Henry through his grief and guilt to make a life, a love, a home, something out of what’s left. A moving historical debut written with empathy and warmth.
The Haunting of Henry Twist by Rebecca John was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award 2017 and is published by Serpent’s Tail, an imprint of Profile Books. It is currently available for £1.99 as an ebook, as well as being out in both hardback and paperback. You can buy it from Amazon UK or Hive which supports your local independent bookshop. To find out more about Rebecca John and her writing, check out her Author Website, or follow her on Twitter.
My thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley. I’ve since bought my own hardback copy and the one for the giveaway below.
I have a signed hardback of The Haunting of Henry Twist to give away to one person who leaves a comment below. The squirrels will pick a winner over the weekend.