Canongate £12.99. Call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897 or visit the Independent Bookshop. Price: £11.69 inc free UK p&p
The Twisted Heart, By Rebecca Gowers Canongate £12.99
A Charles Dickens scholar sees life's seamier side
Sunday 10 May 2009
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.
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Alan Rickman admits editing 'terrible' script with friends in Pizza Hut behind backs of writers on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
- 2 Rarest Beanie Baby of them all could be sold for £62,500 on eBay
- 3 Professional big game hunter Ian Gibson crushed to death by elephant during hunt
- 4 Farmer told to tear down mock-Tudor castle after hiding construction behind hay bales
- 5 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
Better Call Saul creator Peter Gould on the creative concerns of a prequel, season 2 and the mind-numbing realities of the small courts
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Doctor Who film will definitely happen, leaked Sony emails reveal
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
The Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer has leaked – watch
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling