by Lauren Owen
Originally published April 2014, by Random House
Audiobook read by Simon Slater
The Quick is Lauren Owen’s debut novel, an ironically named Victorian gothic rambler that is presumably intended to begin a series, but which desperately wants to be a TV show or a movie trilogy instead. While there are many things to enjoy – a macabre but inventive world, two vastly different but equally delicate love stories, and a reckless willingness to leap off narrative cliffs and abruptly kill characters which, I have to say, I genuinely appreciate – the boldness of these qualities is undermined by the inconsistent, weak pacing.
We’re introduced to our presumably (though not always) main characters, siblings James and Charlotte Norbury, first as children; then, we jump forward to adulthood, when we get to know James much better but see nothing of Charlotte for so long, it makes it difficult to believe in or care about her relationship with her brother when she does finally show up. That being said, everything leading up to Charlotte’s arrival in London, searching for her now missing brother, is strong – decent pacing, good energy, fleshed out characters in a believable, if some what trope-riddled, setting. There’s even a surprisingly touching romance, handled rather delicately. Then the plot takes the first of its several cliff leaps, which frankly left me gasping (Spoiler McSpoilerson, we hardly knew ye), and The Quick turns into another kind of book entirely.
It’s after this first, and most dramatic, twist that the novel becomes epistolary, left-turning into a transcription of the journals of Dr Augustus Mould, who details his scientific experiments and cryptic exposition for us. Many reviewers have complained about this change in narrative style, and I don’t entirely disagree, but in this first moment, as a “wait, WHAT?” change of course from the drama of the event that precedes it, I’m completely on board with a chapter or so of Mould’s journal. The problem is that this goes on far too long, much longer than is necessary either for the exposition (we get it, seriously, the vague hints aren’t as vague as Owen thinks they are) or for the story switch. If it was a brief departure, before a return either to James’s story or, even, over to the long absent Charlotte, then it would be good – it would feel like spending a moment in the cool hush underwater after the jump and fall and crash of the cliff dive. But we stay in that water for…a really, really long time. And we never fully emerge.
The rest of the novel never recovers the steady energy of that first section. Some story lines are drawn out in unnecessary, tedious detail (Adeline Swift’s obvious backstory, for instance, could have been summed up in a few lines and had more of an emotional impact for its brevity), while others are bizarrely compressed (think, “and then, fifty years later…”). Which plots I felt were too long or too short may have a lot to do with which characters I simply was most interested in (the “undid” little girl, Liza, will probably be a fan favorite in the TV adaptation, but really, let’s move on), but it has as much to do with their placement in the book. After spending so many pages drawn into the life and problems of James Norbury, I want to know what happens to him and those closest to him – I don’t want to suddenly swerve off to several chapters of backstory for characters I hadn’t met until halfway through the book. I spent the entirety of this section tapping my fingers, waiting to get back to the real action, and discovered too late that this was what I should expect for the bulk of The Quick.
These all sound like a lot of negatives considering I did end up giving the book four stars on Goodreads. And honestly, I enjoyed it. I found myself thinking about it in between reading sessions, I was often eager to pick it back up and see what came next. I was more attached than I should be to some of these admittedly archetypal characters (an American named Arthur Howland, really? Is that an homage or a parody?), and I wanted to know how everything would turn out for them. Owen’s willingness to take sudden leaps and swerves, as proved so early on, makes for inconsistent pacing, but also makes for a definite “what comes next…?” excitement (which was, unfortunately, not always fulfilled). I’m glad I read it, I enjoyed it more often than not, and when the inevitable sequel is published, I’ll happily read that, too.
But I’m not sure if it’s a positive or negative quality of a novel to spend most of it thinking how much you’d enjoy watching a TV adaptation of it instead.
3 stars for Owen’s writing, bumping up to 3.5 or 4 for the audiobook. I listened to Simon Slater’s quite good reading, and it suited the story and most characters well; he’s a slow reader, taking full stop pauses during commas, which sometimes muddles the flow of a sentence, but other than that fairly small complaint, I found his narration solid, and I think I enjoyed it more as an audiobook than I would have reading the text.
Since finishing The Quick, I’ve read several other amateur/fan reviews. I’m glad I didn’t read this when it first came out or in advance, and I didn’t know anything about the hype – I literally just picked it out of a digital library shelf because I liked the one-sentence synopsis and the cover – because if I’d had some expectation of a dramatic Major Twist, I would have been really disappointed. As it is, the Twist that everyone else is so cryptically alluding to is…pretty obvious. And I was fine with that, because I didn’t realize until afterwards that it was meant to be a startling revelation, and I just went along from page 1 expecting it to be a, you know, Secret Word novel. (Amusingly enough, the reluctance to say the word, while hinting so heavily at it that no one can avoid knowing what you mean, is part of the story just as much as it seems to have been part of the marketing.) I admit I wouldn’t have given it this high a rating if I’d had all this hype and suspense built up beforehand.