If you read Rebecca Gowers’ first novel, When to Walk, you’ve been introduced to Ramble: she’s not easy to know but she’s at the heart of Gowers’ debut so you’ll have made her acquaintance. Those readers who want to make friends with the characters they’re reading about, likely didn’t even get that far with her.
That’s just as well because she wasn’t in a position to establish any new relationships; When to Walk chronicled the week in her life that followed Con’s announcement that he wanted a divorce and Ramble was pretty messed up. She wasn’t always a sympathetic character to start with, so you can imagine she was a little hard to deal with on the page as she was taking steps to leave her marriage behind (unwillingly or not).
Con said she was just plain anti-social at the best of times. Ramble recognized that she was awkward and anxious about other people and preferred her own company, but she couldn’t define herself by Con’s terms anymore; adjusting to her life without him, she spent a lot of time in her own head thinking about her way of being and the life she was living (or not), figuring out what she could trust, in the world and in her own self. Ramble’s week was not a cake walk and she was not a spunky, Oprah-ish heroine, but the novel was well written, the storytelling layered, and Ramble’s perspective was addictive. I was keen to see where Gowers went next.
And so I entered The Twisted Heart with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. “There was an hour of learning steps, then an hour of social dancing. Kit learned the steps but she didn’t stay for the dancing.” This is how the novel opens and the same sentence repeats 6 pages later: “There was an hour of learning steps, then an hour of social dancing. And the learning part was fine. It was great. In sum, it engaged Kit completely without being so hard she couldn’t do it.”
It bears repeating because despite her height, despite her apparent social awkwardness, Kit has mastered the steps. She can learn and she can go through the motions. But that’s not necessarily the point of the dance class and her reasons for attending are likely quite different from some of the other students’ reasons. In fact, given that the students do not even work with partners for the hour of learning the steps, some might feel that the main point of dance class — learning to dance with someone — has been completely overlooked.
Furthermore, Kit’s seeming success in that hour, learning those steps, also overlooks the efforts that she puts forth in simply going through the motions of more everyday activities. She, like Ramble, is not your typical heroine: she, like Ramble, exists separately and disconnectedly, leading a solitary and quiet life, characterized by a profound awkwardness, even with people she knows fairly well, like her roommate and the student she is advising this term. This quality Ramble and Kit share.
Unlike Ramble, however, Kit has a passion. And it’s one which many readers will find it easy to relate to, for after she leaves the dance class, having successfully avoided the social dancing, “[s]he decided to salvage the evening by fitting in a short stint at the library”. Yes, that’s right: she goes to the library. I don’t recall Ramble going to the library (but perhaps she would have in some other less-stressful week) but Kit spends a lot of time there, enough for the librarians to recognize her name on the library hold shelves without asking her for it (yet another social interaction made even less social, no need for even the most basic of exchanges).
She, like Ramble, analyzes things to the nth degree, so she has given an unusual amount of thought to her use of the steps in the Bodleian Library: going up is uncomfortable, demanding either mincing steps touching each stair, else loping up two-stairs-at-a-time, requiring an overlong stretch. But, she continues: “Happily, going down was different. Unless she was positively unwell, Kit liked to rush down this staircase one step at a time as fast as possible, giving her a buzz akin to riffling her thumb through a 900-page paperback.” See, if you’re bookish, you’re already relating to Kit, even a little: you can’t help it.
But Kit doesn’t have much time for relationships and invests an inordinate amount of time and energy in her studies, which centre on the intersection between fact and fiction in Charles Dickens’ descriptions of murder in his writing. Kit is convinced that he took his inspiration from real-life events and searches compulsively for clues and evidence to that end. So, immersed in her research and theorizing, unearthing historical descriptions of brutal murders alongside literary treatments of violence and crime (she is picking up sensation novels after her dance class), her ability to function in the modern world is compromised.
In When to Walk Ramble is preoccupied by the falsity that surrounds her in life, whether it’s a counterfeit bill or a travel article written by someone who’s never been to that destination, and Kit, too, is desperate to know what is real, desperate to feel it, but desperately afraid as well. Just as she is convinced that there is something real behind the fiction of Nancy’s murder in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, she also sees conflict between her own version of herself, viewed from her bookish perspective, and the version of herself which interacts (with varying degrees of willingness and success) with the world beyond the page.
“It took next to no time lying in bed for her to become consciously unhappy. In a book, she thought, her decision not to go back to the dance club would be the hilarious prelude to her going back to the dance club. But not even in her worst nightmares did she behave like a girl from a hilarious book.” And, yet, Kit does behave like that girl in the book; she does go back to the dance club. And perhaps it is because she is borrowing strength from some fictionalized version of herself that she is able to, quite literally, step outside her comfort zone and engage in ways that she hadn’t thought possible before.
And, so, the love story begins. But the dance-class scene and the library salvage scene are not a prelude to a fairy-tale love story and Kit does not transform like Disney’s Cinderella. Rebecca Gowers creates heroines who are vulnerable and inaccessible, brittle and strong-minded: they are inherently contradictory and resoundingly human. You might not want to make friends with them, but you might also agree that’s not (always) the point of good writing.
Kit is awkward and sometimes unlikeable and she will wedge her research between the two of you; I don’t think she can help it. When she’s feeling stressed, her thoughts automatically revert to the world in which she feels more comfortable. Even if you do respond to the passion she has for her studies, you might be frustrated by the rough insertions of theory and literature when you were expecting something relational, a seque into personal growth or a confession or a revelation.
Just be grateful you’re not pursuing romantic involvement. And, if you can get past all this, past the reticence and prickly-ness, and you can appreciate what the author is up to, be grateful that there are still writers who are determined to be true to their characters even when that’s an uncomfortable step to take.
On Mondays and Thursdays in April, I am Buried In Print.