Though books often take me by surprise, dazzle me, shock me, take me off-guard, I can’t say that one has ever done so before in quite this same way. I sometimes look in the back of a book to find out about the author while I’m reading, just out of curiosity, and I was not at all surprised, when, about one-fourth into this one (Lauren Owen’s The Quick) I found out that Lauren Owen is very well-educated and erudite. She is a talented writer who started in English at Oxford, continued at the University of Leeds, then continued in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. She received a writing award in 2009. Now she is working on her Ph. D. in English Literature at Durham University. So, though I was a little taken aback that this is only her first novel and yet is so gripping and intelligent and out-of-the-ordinary, I wasn’t surprised that it read for the first fourth or so very much like a classic English novel from the Victorian period, as if she were modelling herself on the talented women writers of that period.
Basically, I couldn’t get a handle on it. What kind of novel was it? It started out like a character exploration of the two young protagonists, Charlotte and James Norbury, who are left orphans in the care of a distant relative when first their mother dies and then their father sickens and passes on as well. They have previously resided at Aiskew Hall, and when they are orphaned and left in the care of Mrs. Chickering, they continue to reside in the smaller East Lodge of the property, so that they can do with fewer staff and manage costs better. But Charlotte and James have had some games that they play, a bit odd that’s true, but ones which they continue even after they reside with their new guardian, which take place in Aiskew Hall itself. These games are “dare” games, largely thought up by the slightly older Charlotte, which they play in order to be brave and prove themselves equal to their situation. The unusual thing about these dares is that though Charlotte is more or less responsible for them, she doesn’t really “pick on” James with them. There is one incident when she can’t get back away from the adults to release James from an outside-lock priest hole in the library as quickly as she had promised, but she is conscience-stricken and guilty over it, and repines quite a bit. They regard these games as ways of overcoming their misfortunes, and play them until James is sent away to school, leaving Charlotte behind in the care of Mrs. Chickering and whatever governess is current at the moment.
Then, the story shifts again: we begin to follow James Norbury in his career at Oxford, where he meets Geoffrey Margoyle, who introduces him to another young fellow who will become his flatmate and close intimate friend, one Christopher Paige. There is a bit of misdirection in the plot, because just before James is actually introduced to Christopher, he happens upon him in the library stacks, where Christopher is busy kissing Miss Emily Richter, whom James knows to be engaged to someone else. There is a moment of awkwardness, therefore, when James and Christopher actually are introduced, and in the way of the average reader, I suppose, I thought that Emily was going to be key to the plot. Nothing could be further from the truth. But I won’t spoil it by telling what does happen, except to say that regarding Christopher, when he and James go to a party together at Emily’s house, she warns James to “be careful” about something unspecified, and he seems to understand her. But the reader is left in the dark for a number of pages.
Then, the story shifts yet again, this time to a romance, though a very atypical one for the literary form. I have no intention of spoiling this surprise either, except to say that it’s handled in a very wonderful, feeling manner. But it doesn’t last long before the plot shifts to its final emphasis, which is, I will clue you in, that of horror. The one hint I will give you is to point to the title (if you are familiar with the Scriptural phrase “the quick and the dead,” you will be a step ahead). Nevertheless, though the novel retains this subject matter until the very end, it doesn’t desert its picture of Victorian London and other parts of the globe at the same era. It might even be a period history, and the novel seems amazingly true-to-life because of this, though we see things from a peculiar perspective, which might be termed “askew” (perhaps we were even given a clue in the title of the original home of Charlotte and James, “Aiskew Hall”?).
Next, though we leave Charlotte to her own devices and desert her history with Mrs. Chickering for a long span of the novel as we follow James and his story, finally she rejoins the plot and even takes over the action in parts. The ending is a chill-fest, with a heart-stopping finale that I feel will surely appeal to even the most jaded of spooky novel readers. So, pick up this book today and see if you too are not gripped by the unusual plot, characters, events, and conclusion. You won’t be sorry, unless it causes you to lose some sleep….!