I’ve debated how to review Lauren Owen’s The Quick since finishing it a few days ago–I don’t think this is a novel with a twist, as much as it is a novel which dedicates a bit of itself to misdirection. Even the cover could be misleading, as I realized through summaries that this was going to be a novel of secret societies and suspense, but I assumed it would be more in the literary vein, like Alena Graedon’s The Word Exchange.
The Quick seems to tell the story of James and Charlotte Norbury, growing up with a distant father in their treasured but disintegrating Askew Hall. Where generations of the Norbury clan lived lavishly before them, James and Charlotte are mostly left to their own devices, losing track of time amidst old statues in the garden or building their bravery by creating tests of courage in the library.
James grows into a young man and sets off for the big city of London, as young men are wont to do. He’s determined to be a writer, and rarely leaves his flat, sitting up at his desk all hours and staining his hands with ink as he creates long classic poems. He finds himself living vicariously through his roomie Christopher Paige, who comes home late to divulge tales of London high society, heavy drinking, and debauchery.
But the story here hasn’t really begun, because much more than friendship is brewing between the aristocratic Christopher and the meek James. And even then, the story hasn’t really begun, because at a dinner party, James notices that Christopher’s brother looks ill–he seems so pale, and is he wounded? Is he bleeding?
As the book doesn’t directly introduce its subject matter, some readers may be frustrated. The Quick is a historical novel, yes, but it is a supernatural historical novel. All this high society, all this classic London aristocracy–there is something horrible bubbling underneath. There are fight scenes, there are wild street children getting shot in the feet, there are fires and desperate carriage rides to safety. The book includes journal entries, scribbled and ripped in places. Those hoping for the story of James and Charlotte to continue as it did in the style of the book’s beginning may be dismayed, as reality shifts around them, and the narrative drastically changes.
If you are seeking a mild-mannered historical novel, you may want to look elsewhere. If you are interested in what might be crouching in the shadows of that mild-mannered historical novel, overlooked and unexplored, then you’ll want to pick up The Quick.
The Quick reviewed on the New York Times Sunday Book Review – with all the spoilers I didn’t give, for those curious.