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Book Review: The Quick

By (July 27, 2014) No Comment

The Quickthe quick cover

By Lauren Owen

Random House, 2014


Charlotte and James Norbury, the two central characters in Lauren Owen’s lavish whopper of a debut novel, The Quick, are orphaned in the 1880s and sent to Aiskew Hall in the bucolic Yorkshire countryside, where they become close friends and playmates – until, years later, James elects to leave the Hall and go to Oxford, then on to London to pursue an unlikely dream of becoming a literary giant. This mildly dismays Charlotte, who remains back in the village, and her dismay only increases when James’s letters to her become first stilted and awkward and then stop altogether. She resolves to journey to London and find James, whom she worries has perhaps fallen in with a bad crowd.

And boy oh boy, is she right. Doubly so: first, James has met a waifish young man named Christopher Paige who quickly becomes his lover in a society where that’s still very much a crime, and second, through Christopher, James has met an entire coven of vampires living and preying unseen amidst the unsuspecting populace of London.

Charlotte has had her doubts about James from the beginning. “He had always given the impression,” she reflects, “of existing in both the everyday world and somewhere else,” but nevertheless, she’s totally unprepared to encounter her brother (in an effectively creepy scene in his London room) as a literally otherwordly being – but she nevertheless has to deal with that, since by the time she finds her brother he’s already undergoing transformation into a vampire.

She’s heard rumors of such creatures, of course, and The Quick’s plot picks up steam once she – and we – begin to learn more of the alternate reality Owen has created:

“You have to remember,” one of Owen’s many exposition-providers says at one point, “that we don’t know for certain how human they are. They’ve been viewed as man possessed by demons, a blessed elect, sufferers of a ghastly infection. They may, in many senses, be dead, and yet to kill them would be illegal and most likely immoral. You’ve seen them. You know one may look into their eyes and not be certain if there is a human soul staring back.”

The plot, once it ranges beyond Aiskew Hall, expands quickly and confidently and branches into multiple narrative viewpoints. We watch as Charlotte sheds some of her naïve provincialism:

It was an unnatural place, London. At home she could walk briskly, unhindered, through the grounds of Aiskew Hall or down to the village or across the fields, without fear of being looked at askance or of accidentally colliding with another pedestrian. But the city cared nothing for her – there had been thousands here before her birth, thousands more would walk these streets after she had died. And yet it was a relief now to walk amidst so much life. It affected one like a cup of strong coffee, she thought – a hectic energy and excitement, eventually succeeded, no doubt, by listless exhaustion.

And read the private journal of Augustus Mould, a kind of Van Helsing stand-in who’s dedicated to studying vampires as an entomologist would study bugs:

They are far stronger and faster than ordinary men. They heal speedily from physical injury. If they choose, they can divine one’s very thoughts. Holy water, according to most authorities, is poison to them. Subdues – sufficient quantity will kill. They have owl eyes, see best at night. (Mem. Investigate these limitations more thoroughly. Some appear irrational, superstitious. They certainly appear to work – e. g., holy water – but why?)

James encounters an organization called the Aegolius Club, a clandestine group of posh vampires who very carefully choose not only which ordinary humans to kill and feed upon (only the riff-raff, it turns out – the drug addicts, the pimps, you know, the people who deserve to die) but also which ordinary humans to turn into vampires. The Aegolius Club operates in secret, but it nevertheless has its own enemies (including an alternate secret group called the Alia), and it’s not accustomed to taking ‘no’ for an answer from mortals like James or Christopher – and so it is that by the time The Quick reaches its half-way point, Owen has a rollicking good pot-boiler going, and she’s in remarkably thorough control of the whole thing.

It’s been a decade since Elizabeth Kostova’s gaudily bloated vampire novel The Historian, and plenty of Owen’s readers have pointed out some of the similarities between the two books. This is perhaps natural, but it’s a side-show to The Quick’s true genetic ancestry: to say this book owes something to the vampire novels of Anne Rice would be an understatement; to say this book owes everything except a couple of hairpins and an outdated Baedeker guide to the vampire novels of Anne Rice would be much more accurate.

These vampires are super-beings with virtually no weaknesses; they’re sexy and charismatic (creepy bug-eyed nosferatu need not apply); they assemble into clandestine and arrogantly effete clubs; they can ‘turn’ people as well as simply sucking them dry; they make a point, as we’ve noted, of feeding only on the rotten apples among humanity, the pushers and scumbags who became fair game in the Reaganite atmosphere of Rice’s The Vampire Lestat … and, leave us not forget, nine-tenths of the interpersonal proceedings are as gay as a Fire Island afternoon tea. As skillful as Owen is at crafting her Victorian setting, it would be the most natural thing in the world for James and Christopher to run into Lestat and Louis.

This isn’t necessarily a fault, of course (although it’s as yet still worthwhile to point out that Anne Rice herself, bless her, is still hard at work writing Anne Rice novels), and as far as creativity-in-vampires goes, all this Victorian steamery is preferable to, for instance, Undead arising from rogue scientific experiments. Owen unabashedly embraces the baroque opulence of her story, and her skill is such (it’s very nearly impossible to credit this is a first novel) that her readers will too.