Reviewed by Sakura Gooneratne
The Quick by Lauren Owen burst into the literary scene earlier this year with fantastic reviews in major broadsheets and literary blogs, no mean feat for a literary gothic thriller. Owen’s debut follows in the footsteps of Wilkie Collins with a dash of Dr. Polidori and Susanna Clarke. It’s a fine mixture of the literary and sensational Victorian Gothic, a combination of which I highly approve.
The Quick begins with James and Charlotte Norbury, living a neglected and carefree life in their crumbling pile, Askiew, with an absent father who returns briefly only to pass away. James is sent away to school and then Oxford while Charlotte goes to live as a companion to their spinster cousin. When James decides to try his luck as a poet in London, he ends up sharing rooms with Christopher Paige, so golden and charismatic, who transforms James’ solitary life. But an unfortunate encounter one night will change all their lives. There is a group of powerful men intent on changing the world with plans to make their carefully hidden presence known; behind the facade of The Aegolius Club is a secret which would chill the blood of all Londoners. But a select group of people who do know what lurks in the darkness are preparing to fight and lay down their lives to save ‘the Quick’. When Charlotte comes to London and finds her brother in a frightful state, she is determined not to lose him again. There are ruthless people after them and she is soon forced to accept the help of Shadwell and Adeline Swift, an eccentric pair, as well as Arthur Howland, young, wealthy and American, who have seen the hellish world Charlotte has only glimpsed and have sworn to protect their friends.
Having read a long list of Gothic novels since I was a schoolgirl obsessed with Dracula, Frankenstein and Interview with the Vampire and continuing into my adulthood with increasingly disappointing encounters with the genre, I was at first suspicious about how good The Quick would be. I found the beginning to be rather slow and heavy but partway, I was hooked. The different sets of characters that pop in halfway and the way Owen cuts across scenes seems inconsistent at first but eventually tie in beautifully. One of the best things about Owen’s style is that she eschews sentimentality and gets on with the story. There is nothing that drags more than an emo-fuelled justification of a character’s feelings. I also liked the big gaps in time which, although disconcerting at first, makes you feel as though the story is progressing quickly.
Here and there, you glimpse slices of Gothic literature and history from which Owen draws her fictional world; from the dark overtones of Robert Louis Stevenson to the hedonism of Oscar Wilde. Owen skillfully weaves together different thematic variations of Gothic literature to produce a multi-faceted story. The early chapters in which we glimpse the lonely, rambling yet free childhood of James and Charlotte in Askiew, a Gothic aficionado’s dream house, with its severely curtailed staff and dusty, empty rooms is reminiscent of Diane Setterfield’s wonderful The Thirteenth Tale. In finding a balance between plot and characterisation, the plot takes precedence here but the some of the characters, especially Shadwell and Adeline Swift, are beautifully complex.
I may have wished a little more depth and back story to some of the more dubious and misguided characters in The Quick and the final showdown seemed a little hurried. But the overall pace of the story was perfect, especially the chapters featuring Shadwell and Adeline and their unconventional partnership. However, one of the things that I did find odd was the way in which the vampire children remained child-like in appearance, which makes sense, but also in mind, which doesn’t. Having lived longer than most of their human counterparts, it felt strange to hear them retain child-like dialogue. But it’s a small grumble in what is otherwise an exciting addition to the genre. And the sparseness of information and detail leaves you fervently wishing that Owen will return to this dark and moody world she has created.
Sakura blogs at Chasing Bawa.
Lauren Owen, The Quick (Jonathan Cape, London, 2014) 978-0224096386, 528pp., hardback.