The Twisted Heart by Rebecca Gowers

This was probably one of the first books that called me when I saw the Orange Prize longlist. A modern heroine explores a Victorian murder mystery with a Dickensian connection. It sound like it could be great.

And I did like The Twisted Heart – just not in the way I expected.

You see it wasn’t the kind of story I expected. I was expecting a mystery to be set up, investigated and ultimately resolved, but it didn’t quite work like that.

The main focus was on a short and significant period in one young woman’s life. Kit. I liked her, I recognised her, and I could easily imagine chatting with her.

Kit was a post-graduate student in Oxford, researching the murder of a Victorian prostitute. A murder remarkably similar to the death of Nancy in Oliver Twist. Why?

She’s bookish and happy to live a quiet life, but she does wonder if maybe she ought to be more sociable. And so she goes to a dance class. Where she meets Joe, a maths professor.

A relationship emerges on rather unsteady feet. Kit is distracted by her research and Joe is distracted by his troubled elder brother. Or is it something more?

And that’s about it. There’s not too much plot, but the pleasures of this book are in the execution.

Rebecca Gowers writes beautifully.

Her  characters are real, with just the right amount of quirkiness, and they have some wonderful thought and exchanges.

Their various relationships are caught perfectly too: the domestic intimacy of Kit and her flatmate Michaela; the unbreakable bond between Joe and his brother; the awkward, evolving relationship between Kit and Joe.

The story dances lightly along. Did it need a literary mystery? Maybe not.

But all of the talk of Dickens and Victorian murder was engaging and clearly well researched. Joe picked up his copy of Oliver Twist; Orson, Kit’s graduate student was eager to get involved; I’d reread it myself, if I could only find the time!

No real resolution though – just a theory to fit the facts.

Soon after that the book finished: some strands were tied up nicely, while others just drifted off. Such is life.

And the Twisted Heart is a slice of life, rather than the tightly plotted novel that the cover seemed to promise. And, for me, it succeeded on those terms.

It wasn’t the great book I’d hoped for, but I enjoyed reading it nonetheless.

9 responses

  1. This review has made me so much more excited to read this novel! Murder mysteries are generally things I shy away from, so I’d written The Twisted Heart off as something that wouldn’t interest me. However, it definitely sounds like I’ll need to try, despite my first impression.

    • I’d call it quirky romance meets literary puzzle. And the puzzle happens to involve murder. It’s definitely worth a try.

  2. I had to have this one when I saw it on the list–it’s one of the titles that really appealed to me. I’m looking forward to reading it, even if it doesn’t quite meet the promise on the cover blurbs. It sounds like something I will enjoy.

  3. I really enjoyed this one too. I think the disappointment I’ve come across has been rooted in the marketing. Some editions (not the Canadian one I read) seem to suggest that the literary mystery is on par with the quirky romance, whereas that side of the book isn’t seamlessly worked in.

    It just can’t be smooth because Kit is so humanly awkward — so comfortable in her own solitude, but tripping over her own self in other relationships — but for readers who were expecting a literary mystery to be solved by a less-conflicted heroine, I guess it couldn’t help but seem disappointing.

    Not any reflection of Gowers’ talents in my opinion though!

    • I like a traditional literary mystery, but there are plently out there already. This was something much more interesting and I’ll definitely look out for more of Rebecca Gower’s work. my library has her non fiction – I forget the title – which I will pick up before too long.

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