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The Quick: A sharply written Victorian vampire novel

The Quick
Lauren Owen
McClelland & Stewart

Readers coming to The Quick, the debut novel from English writer Lauren Owen, having only read the jacket copy, will have a very different experience of the novel than those who are more adequately informed.

Normally, such unpreparedness tends to work to the novel's advantage; I'm not sure that's the case here. The Quick requires, and rewards, the contemporary reader's willingness to shift while reading, to course-correct through the narrative.

Based on a reading of the novel's jacket, readers would likely expect something of a Victorian era pastiche, and The Quick's first hundred pages deliver exactly that. The early stages of the book follow the young lives of James and Charlotte Norbury, growing up in Aiskew Hall, a crumbling mansion in Yorkshire. Theirs is a world of mysterious gardens and whispered secrets, hidden rooms and shadowy halls. We're firmly in the realm of the uncanny here, a sensation that lingers even after the scene shifts to London, where James, as a young man and recent Oxford graduate, lives off the scraps of his family money while trying to develop a career as a poet. He takes rooms with Christopher Paige, a devotee of the city's social whirl. While James initially chafes at Paige and his lifestyle, he finds himself drawn in by the magnetic young man, and begins to explore both London and his own attraction to his flatmate.

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This story of forbidden love, complete with familial resistance and social secrecy, is shattered, however, when they are attacked one evening. And there, the story turns.

As the novel shifts from the third-person narrative focusing on James and Paige to fragments from a recovered notebook written by Augustus Mould, a previously unknown characternow given primacy of place, readers will likely stop at phrases like "a man may die, only to revive blessed with marvelous powers" and wonder just how, exactly, The Quick transformed into a vampire novel. And a good one, at that.

Make no mistake, The Quick is good reading. Charlotte's search for her brother – who has become a vampire following the attack and is, at first, being held at the Aegolius Club, a traditional English social club that serves as a front for a secret society of vampires, where he refuses to embrace his new nature – is adventure of the first order, firmly rooted in both the tropes of the genre and the skilfully rendered texture of the period. Arriving as a naïf from the country, concerned only with finding James, Charlotte encounters scholarly vampire hunters, a dashing American survivor of a vampire attack, and another society of vampires, at odds with the men of the Club.

Overseen by Mrs. Price, the Alia live in the shadows and the slums, and present, thematically, a valuable counter to the Club and its all male membership. Owen plays with issues of class and sex, but it's never heavy-handed, and at times it provides valuable comic relief. When the Alia refer to vampires as The Undid, one can hear the Cockney accent at work on the traditional The Undead: it's like Oliver, with fangs. ("The Quick" is the term used by the vampires to refer to human beings.)

The central section of the novel, which revolves largely around Charlotte's time in London, provides a multi-faceted exploration of London living and dead, with viewpoints shifting from character to character in a kaleidoscopic manner. Every voice is different enough to allow these shifts to feel natural, and the reader will pass easily, if not outright quickly, through the narrative.

Owen, who is a PhD candidate in English literature, handles The Quick with a marked skill, capturing the tone of the late Victorian gothic without sacrificing a contemporary sensibility: she hits the notes of the period pot-boiler without ever falling to parody. Her characterizations are handled almost as well. James and Charlotte are well developed (and the power of their devotion to one another is the guiding principle of the novel), and the multiple point-of-view characters emerge with individualized power. Chief among these is Liza, Mrs. P's closest companion, trapped forever, unaging, as a little girl, who will break your heart.

The Quick should be easy to recommend wholeheartedly, but it does, unfortunately, come with a caveat about the structure. The early chapters of the book are powerful in their own right, well-written and evocative, but with the shift into the world of the vampires (which comes about 100 pages in) they take on the aspect of mere back-story, killing time before the narrative actually begins. They're so well-written, however, that they don't read as back-story, and readers – even those satisfied with the vampire sections – may find themselves wishing Owen had continued with that story instead.

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Possibly more problematic are the novel's closing pages, which chronicle what happens to Charlotte after the events in London, and present another sharp shift, this time from the immersive experience of a mere few days in the London chapters to the barest of summaries of decades' worth of events.

And yet...

Those chapters also work, despite the somewhat jarring shift, and the reader is left, with The Quick, with something more remarkably akin to a Victorian novel, perhaps something published in installments: it's baggy and loose, at times too much, at times not enough, but driven by sharp storytelling, thought-provoking ideas, and strong characters. It might take a bit for a contemporary reader, used to the comparatively sleek design of most modern fiction, to adjust, but the effort is amply repaid.

Robert J. Wiersema's new novel, Black Feathers, will be published next year.

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