Archive for December, 2014

THE QUICK by Lauren Owen

The cover blurb for this book reads:

‘You are about to discover the secrets of The Quick –

But first, reader, you must travel to Victorian England, and there, in the wilds of Yorkshire, meet a brother and sister alone in the world, a pair bound by tragedy. You will, in time, enter the rooms of London’s mysterious Aegolius Club – a society of the richest, most powerful men in England. And at some point – we cannot say when – these worlds will collide.

It is then, and only then, that a new world emerges, a world of romance, adventure and the most delicious of horrors – and the secrets of The Quick are revealed.’

The Berwick Book Group had an overall lukewarm response to ‘The Quick’. Although we liked some of the writing, the majority thought that it was an opportunity missed by the author.

WARNING – SPOILERS AHEAD!

One member writes, ‘I gave up after 150 pages, through boredom, though I thought it started well – basically before the vampires set in. Loads of potential in the homosexual relationship; it seemed a waste not to see it through.  I thought it was a shame that such a potentially good novelist had chosen a silly subject. I’d been willing to give it a go, but didn’t even feel tense, let alone frightened. And couldn’t have cared less what was going happen. Vampires are in fashion, but

I need more convincing to bother with them. However I thought she was sometimes very good at characterisation. For instance ‘his face was like an empty plate.’ Brilliant!’

As for me, I was looking forward to reading this Victorian Gothic novel.  I like a bit of Gothic horror/ghostliness at this time of year; when the nights close in, a book, an armchair and a glass of wine is a very tempting option. The Quick, at over 500 pages, is nearing doorstopper status but I was prepared to commit to it on the strength of glowing reviews from two of my favourite writers.  Hilary Mantel describes it as, “A sly and glittering addition to the literature of the macabre . . . a skilled, assured performance. . . it’s hard to believe it is a first novel”, and Kate Atkinson goes even further with, ‘a feast of gothic storytelling that is impossible to resist’. Unfortunately, I found The Quick fairly easy to resist – and I probably would have done just that if it had not been a Book Group read.  It’s difficult to work out what is missing with this novel.  All the ingredients for ‘a feast of Gothic storytelling’ are there – the well executed faux-Victorian style of the writing, the authentic period detail, the well-drawn and likeable protagonists, and the ‘monsters among us’ story-line  – so why did The Quick feel like a bland and under-seasoned dish?

Perhaps because, although Shadwell and Adeline, James and Christopher, and Charlotte and Howland were all excellent pairings in theory, the spark does not ignite in the execution, even though there are some really interesting dynamics there.  I think the buttoned-up, faux-Victorian writing style might be to blame; the characters are all a little too reined in and veiled.  Maybe, with a little more balance between the social mores of the time and the real hearts beating beneath, they might have ignited.  This may be why the character of Liza, the child vampire, springs to ‘life’ more vividly and readily; she does not have to abide by the decorous standards of the middle-class adults.  On a side note, I did enjoy the nod to Fagin with Mrs Price and her vampire street urchins.

The vampires themselves are chilling – particularly the way they can invade our minds – and the Class/Gender war between the gentlemen vampires at the Club and the working class Mrs Price and her right-hand girl Lisa is entertaining.  However, the final confrontation is very tame – especially considering that there has been very little previous face-to-face interaction between the vampires and the quick (although the scene with little Liza and her child victim is truly horrible and chilling).

Pace is an issue – The Quick is actually far too slow, particularly in the third quarter. Perhaps, also, there is too much suspense and not enough denouements.  Suspense and suggestion are wonderful writing tools, but Lauren Owen seems to have bought into the whole ‘monsters are most frightening when left to our imagination’ school of thought a little too much.  Yes, glimpses are fine to whet the curiosity, but she almost perversely continues to guide us away from the meaty action, rather like a Victorian governess with her charges.  And sometimes the hints, annoyingly, come to nothing.  For example the line at the start of chapter 27 – ‘There was something stirring inside the room at the end of the passage.  A curtain, most likely, stirring in the breeze’ – which suggested to me that Adeline’s fiancé/Shadwell’s son might still be in there.  Maybe I missed something, but I don’t think that hint was ever followed through.

Finally, I did find this a dispiriting read, but not because of the dark themes; rather, there were too few extremes of emotion, particularly on the positive side.  Okay, it’s a Gothic novel, but that doesn’t rule out passion or joy or exaltation or victorious feelings; even negative emotions such as anger and hatred would have livened things up if they had been portrayed with more intensity.  As it was, these protagonists seemed defeated before they had even started.

I would not rule out reading another book by this author, but The Quick did not shine for me.

Ann Coburn

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About the book group

The Berwick Book Group meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the First Class Passenger Lounge on the platform of Berwick Train Station at 6.30pm.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit www.newwritingnorth.com/submit/join-berwick-book-group.

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