I love a book which conjures me away to a different time, a different life and The quick, the debut novel by Lauren Owen certainly ticks those boxes.
Brother and sister James and Charlotte live in Yorkshire where, in the absence of parents (a dead mother and disinterested father), they are looked after by household staff. Charlotte, the elder of the two, teaches James to read and write and together they explore the sprawling grounds of their house. When their father dies the purse strings are tightened, and while Charlotte goes to live in reduced circumstances in a cottage on the grounds with Mrs. Chittering, their father’s relative, James is sent off to school and university. James’s ambition is to become a writer and he heads to London where he shares rooms with Christopher, a rather louche and urbane young man.
As the months go by, the men’s friendship deepens and when accompanying his friend to his mother’s home for dinner, James is introduced to Christopher’s family and quickly realises that something is very wrong. And when the gentlemen from the Aegolius Club get involved, matters go from bad to worse.
The story is told from various viewpoints. As well as James and, later, Charlotte, we enter the heads of a sycophantic scientist (via his notebook), a young urchin girl and a wire-walking adventuress (via her diary). While this device works well in filling in a lot of backstory, I found that I felt somewhat removed from the experiences of the various characters. At one crucial point of the story we leave James’s point of view and never return to it and this is where, in my opinion, the book falls down. I’d have preferred to go back to his story at least once more and felt that I had been left hanging, unsatisfied.
Having said this, each character is drawn well with their own voice, the language is beautiful and Owen’s new take on an old genre – I won’t tell you more because I don’t want to give any spoilers – is interesting and fresh. The title is attention grabbing and I think that when you find out exactly what – or who – the quick are you may, as I did, find the irony in that title.
A very competent book and I look forward to reading more from this talented new writer.
The quick is published on April 3rd 2014.