A frustrating overlong novel that takes too long to make thing happen and falls back on cliche and a handwavy belief in sexual attraction.

opening remarks

The Haunting of Henry Twist – or as I like to call it THoHT – bears a striking similarity to the last Costa nominated book I read, The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times – or as I like to call it TCiTHATDT.  They’re both around the same length, are set in the 1920s and concern themselves with the aftermath of World War 1.

It would appear that the ‘haunting’ expressed in the title of THoHT refers to (a) Henry’s wife Ruby dying in a tragic accident when nine months pregnant (the baby, Libby, survives) and (b) Henry being stalked in the shadows by a man named Jack Turner:

I’m only a fifth of the way through the novel – so maybe I’m not playing fair – but I’m impatiently waiting for the story to move up a gear.  We’ve had Ruby’s tragic death, we’ve had Henry’s mourning and grief – coupled with multiple flashbacks including his first meeting with Ruby – we’ve had the appearance of Jack Turner who may, or may not, be a ghost haunting Henry and we’ve had Matilda, the wife of Henry’s best mate Grayson, near prostrate herself at Henry’s feet, because he’s the man she would rather be with.  The point being all the bits and pieces seem to be in place but the novel is stalled at the gate.

Jack, apparently, isn’t a ghost just someone who seems to have lost his memory.  He also reminds Henry of Ruby and, when he takes off his shirt, seems to have similar injuries down his left side… as if he’d also been hit by a vehicle.

Could Ruby be possessing Jack?  Are Henry and Jack about to get it on?

Henry’s relationship with Jack is odd, to say the least.  He’s fallen in love with Jack because he convinced the young man is a reincarnation of his beloved dead wife.  So while he’s horrified at being viewed as a ‘nancy’ he’s still willing to lie naked with Jack.

And it’s Matilda who catches the two men lying in bed together:

I just wish Matilda wasn’t so obsessed and in love with Henry, a man who has never led her on, never indicated any intention to be with her.  She’s our only main female character – aside from Ruby who, other than dying, lives in the Ruby-coloured memories of her loving husband – and as such having Matilda be so one-dimensional is frustrating.

And here she is, Matilda, halfway through the novel, inexorably descending into madness, fuelled by jealousy.  Her husband is having an affair.  The man she loves has shacked up with a bloke and her best friend Ruby is rotting in her grave.  There’s no depth here, Matilda’s reaction and her state of mind are, and I hesitate to say this, a cliche.  We never really get to see Matilda as anything other than a woman hankering for another woman’s husband, suffering a loveless marriage:

The novel is full of foreboding and foreshadowing.  We know that Matilda is up to something terrible, something that will likely ruin lives, possibly including hers as well, but it’s taking forever for things to eventuate.

And, although I’m a fan of speculative fiction, the character of Sybil, a spiritualist and fortune-teller, bugs me.  I know that Henry thinks that Jack possesses the soul of his wife Ruby but that doesn’t mean it’s true or anything other than an expression of his grief (and latent homosexuality).  But Sybil, unabashedly and without ambiguity, has psychic powers.  She reads Henry’s mind and has the power to find a missing person (in this instance Jack).  Her ‘powers’ stick out, they’re at odds with the novels heightened sense of drama: infidelity forbidden love, jealousy and betrayal.  I suppose the book is, tonally, reaching for a gothic or supernatural flavour – the title being a giveaway – I just don’t think it earns it.

It’s interesting, here, that Henry doesn’t view himself as a ‘pansy’.  As I’ve said already his excuse for shagging Jack is that in his mind he’s really making love to Ruby.  But he also admits that he loves Jack qua Jack.  So is Henry simply denying his true nature or is the argument that love transcends sexual orientation?  I wish Rebecca John had made an effort to answer the question, or at least dig deeper into the mystery of love and attraction, because for me it’s one of the most interesting parts of the book and yet it’s never fully developed, were simply meant to ride along with the love story:

I can’t help but think: yes Matilda if you had not been an awful cliche things might have gone a tad better.

The Gist of It

You might have already guessed that I didn’t particularly enjoy reading Rebecca F. John’s debut novel The Haunting of Henry Twist.  It’s not just because I found the character of Matilda to be objectionable, I also never really bought into Henry and Jack’s relationship (more on that in a second) and I found the novel to be overwritten and overwrought, a book that never finds a comfortable rhythm.

John’s isn’t an awful writer, there’s the infrequent nice turn of phrase.  However, there’s something stifling and claustrophobic about her prose.  Every thought and motivation is picked over and each character – not just Maltida – spends great chunks of the narrative deliberating and angsting over their decisions.  It’s all dialled up to twenty and while there’s some justification given Henry’s wife has died horribly, he’s now sleeping with a man who might be the corporeal home of his wife’s soul and he has a newborn to look after, rather than fuel the drama this constant stream of doubt, anxiety, fear, jealousy (the shitty emotions) make the novel a chore to read.

But that’s not my real problem with the book, no my real issue is Henry and Jack’s relationship.  The conceit of the novel is that Henry sees the ghost of his wife – her soul, her nature, her essentialness – in Jack.  So falling in love with Jack is not Henry being gay it’s Henry loving his wife in an unconventional manner.  Late in the book Henry views it this way, in the last chapter we discover that Henry has struggled for decades to come to terms with his relationship with Jack.  Now, if the novel had paid greater emphasis on Henry’s confusion about his sexuality, had tendered the idea that he might actually be bi, I’d have been OK with things.  But with the ill-fitting introduction of psychic Sybil and other characters noting elements of Ruby in Jack I was left with the impression that love and the possession of your wife’s soul by another person upstages sexual orientation, that falling in love and making love is as simple as finding that essential nature that attracts you.  I’m not buying it.  I don’t know if this was actually John’s intent but the inability of the novel to accept that Henry may be gay, or bi and that the relationship between he and Jack is as much about love as it is about sexuality, made for a less than satisfying reading experience.

And yeah, Matilda is an awful character.