I got this book nearly a year ago, got five pages in and then got distracted. The second time around, I started it and finished it within three days. It is a very compelling read and the strategically placed cover recommendations from Hilary Mantel and Kate Atkinson are well-justified. Like a rich piece of chocolate cake, this one felt like pure indulgence, packed full with traditions from various strands of Victorian literature but put together with a style that was quite its own. Interestingly, I read a whole host of reviews which were far more critical than mine, mostly discussing how it had been over-hyped, that the twist was predictable etc, but having somehow side-stepped any publicity, I came to it with fresh eyes and was totally hooked. For me, this was definitely one of my favourite reads of 2015.
The Quick begins in a crumbling old country house where two children grow up with a minimal amount of supervision. It is an idyllic world, with owls on the nursery frieze and with the barest sprinkling of rules. The elder Charlotte has a habit of putting her younger brother James through ‘ordeals’, one of which leads him to to be locked up in the ‘priest-hole’ in the library for a whole afternoon, something which leaves a mark on the child and means he struggles to forgive his sister – faint suggestions of the Red Room episode in Jane Eyre here. Flashing forward to adulthood, Charlotte is stuck as companion to their aunt and James is ambling along, attempting to scratch out a living as a writer. He makes firm friends – and then becomes more than firm friends – with his flatmate, the dissolute young aristocrat Christopher Paige – again, shades of Oscar Wilde here as well as Brideshead Revisited. However, one night the pair have a truly hideous encounter and it is quite clear that all will never be the same again.
The reader has been already warned of the Aegolius Club, a mysterious organisation whose symbol is an owl and which has stringent requirements for entry. However, it has been a barely understood presence in the first section while in the second part, we are introduced to the notes of Augustus Mould. From acting as tutor to one of the members, he becomes involved to study and even experiment upon them and we realise that – whisper it very softly – we are in the middle of a vampire novel. I think that this is where the hype came in for a lot of people. The trope of the vampire has been rinsed out and re-used a few times too often; even this week, I discovered that Stephanie Meyer had rewritten Twilight with a gender-bender. There are the ‘virals’ of The Passage, the middle-class Radleys, the pseudo-addicts of Being Human – it is very little wonder that Lauren Owen and her publishers wanted to try and sneak this one past the public before the book was simply dismissed as just another vampire story. As someone who for years sniffed that I don’t read books with vampires or werewolves, the previously listed books have forced me to confront my prejudices over the past few years so I was ready to leave preconceptions behind.
It is hard not to give too much away however – a big part of the charm comes from the twists and turns of the narrative as we are given the perspective of various different characters, each of whom brings a little more to the story. For a debut author, Owen makes superb use of her silences, with the reader being allowed to fill in some truly fabulous ellipses; key sections of Augustus Mould’s journal are ripped out, other parts of the story are quietly repressed by key characters and the blanks that are left have a great deal of power. When I realised that a sequel was in the offing, I felt disappointed – I hope that Owen manages to sustain the suspense even when the gaps are filled. The rules are clearly sketched out – there is the Aegolius Club, filled with men who are a great deal older than they look. They perform ‘the exchange’ on useful and willing recruits, seeking to expand their power base and maintain the Club’s position. And up in the attic is the deadly ‘Doctor Knife’, performing his experiments and seeking to know more about the true nature of their condition. But on the other side of London is Mrs Price with her ‘undid’ who are an entirely different kettle of fish and no less terrifying for it.
It is clear that this is a novel written by a young author – one can imagine it doing well with the young adult audience, and yet it has a great deal of vim and originality with which to recommend itself. It is also no surprise to discover at the end that this was written while Owen was studying for a PhD in Gothic literature. The child vampire messenger, like so many other urchins from Victorian fiction, sharp-tongued like the Artful Dodger and like Peter Pan, never quite able to grow up. The diabolical Burke, swaddled in blankets and desperate to save others from himself. There is more than a whisper of Dracula too, with the two Van Helsing types, Shadwell and Adeline, bent on chronicling and investigating their quarry as well as quashing it. Even James’ sister Charlotte, an apparent Gothic ingenue, has echoes of the Mina Harker about her. The Quick feels like a book that is peeping at the reader sideways, looking to catch our reaction but keeping its secrets to itself. The two ‘central characters’ do at times feel under-explored but again it is not that they are blank, it is more that we the reader are not allowed to see into their core. There are too many characters here with half-told stories for Owen to be able to abandon them all for a sequel, but there is a sense of poignancy in the final section for those who may have stayed quick but who have still met their end. One is left wondering where Owen plans to take this one next – I am most certainly intrigued to find out.
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Published by Random House on April 3rd 2014
Genres: Fiction, General, Historical
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