As the international money markets stage a compulsorily interactive, 21st-century version of Little Dorrit, we can be in no doubt that Dickensian times are upon us. Accordingly, up bob two novels focussing on Boz's biography. In March, Gaynor Arnold's fictionalised treatment of Dickens's wife, Girl in a Blue Dress, made it on to the Orange Prize longlist. And now, Rebecca Gowers has published a tale which probes the links between the young novelist and the savage murder of a London prostitute, known as the Countess.
But there's nothing remotely Dickensian in style or plot about The Twisted Heart, which is billed by its publisher as "a literary murder mystery and a tale of modern love". Gowers's heroine is a young, Oxford academic called Kit. She's no Dickens caricature – neither angelic virgin nor bitter harridan. The fogs through which she gropes are in her mind. For Kit has difficulty sleeping, socialising and eating regular meals, preferring to spend her time researching Victorian attitudes to violence in the Old Bodleian Library.
Kit seems to care about little else. She works hard for her one student, tolerates her flatmate and listens politely enough to her tutor's marital difficulties. But she spends much of the narrative in a wryly over-analytical headspace which may initially tax the reader's patience. Here she is, justifying her decision to leave a dance class early: "She had had the powerful sense that if she didn't get out while the going was good, it would cease to be good; that the going barely was good, in fact – was pretty weird, you might say – but that the thing was still at a stage where it would be possible to think about it afterwards as having been good, maybe, viewed in retrospect; the stamping, for example, humourous." Phew.
Luckily she meets a curious chap at that dance class who gradually rattles her from her self-absorbed, book-bound existence. Their relationship is singularly convincing and genuinely moving. Both of them are prickly, over-sensitive characters, whose minds meet like mating hedgehogs. Her mystery man's connection with the rougher side of Oxford forces Kit to confront the tedious squalor of violence for real, while she unravels the connection between Dickens's fiction and the facts of the murdered prostitute. Blood swashes between ancient pages and modern pavements, while 21st-century love is laid tenderly but unflinchingly bare in this ultimately strange and lingering novel.