Sunday, 2 March 2014

The Quick by Lauren Owen

The Quick is a novel set in Victorian England, mostly in London. The book starts with an atmospheric chapter about two children growing up in an almost-abandoned mansion near York, looked after by a servant while a distant father is mostly an ominous concept, rather than any reality. A wonderfully dramatic series of events with just the right level of mystery and scariness occurs. The chapter is full of rich descriptions, atmosphere and the children are perfectly set up to be the heroes of a tale...

...only then the narrative skips, and they are adults, and we're not following the girl, but the withdrawn, aloof boy, and there's so much less drama and atmosphere as he goes to University, finds himself, meanders around the edges of high society without any purpose or drive...

...for ages and ages and AGES...

...until there are a few plot turns, first all about society and relationships, and then, only then, after a very long time, does the narrative drift into a slightly more Gothic Victorian tale.

And then, for some more ages and ages and ages, it switches perspective, as we read the scientific diary of a man who will become Doctor Knife...

As you can guess from my review thus far, the book struggles badly with pacing (or the lack of it). Perspectives shift quite frequently, and the characters it shifts to are not always interesting. Still, for each, we get a whole back story (decades of it), and this is a book which really believes in concluding things, because even after the climactic confrontations, we still get ending after anding after ending, until we know for almost every single character what they did with the rest of their lives.

A looooong intro and a looooong outro: not the hallmarks of modern novel pacings. Perhaps that makes it authentic - I did not love Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus. Perhaps the author was trying to emulate that novel and its contemporaries, and perhaps she succeeded.

For me, the novel quickly drifted from "descriptions which add to the atmosphere" into "details that I really did not care about". People make tea, eat, think about domestic matters, run into other people and scenes that have no dramatic energy at all. Sometimes, there are things revealed about characters (a woman, sleeping in another woman's bed, notices the smell of sweaty hair, the general untidiness and unVictorian lack of primness), but at other times, the books is just filled to the rafters with filler descriptions and filler scenes and meaningless padding.

There is a time in this novel when it actually has pace and energy - when Shadwell and Adeline appear. Of course, this is first sabotaged, by being given their entire back story in great detail, but once they're actually doing stuff, the novel actually gains a bit of momentum, for a while.

The novel struggles with some serious mistakes: It gives us too much detail about the wrong characters - or perhaps the characters it gives a lot of detail about instantly become boring because they lose their mystique. Charlotte is interesting, but spends a good chunk of the novel hidden away and disempowered inside her mansion, while her brother, basically a bit of a wet blanket, goes to uni, not doing anything interesting at all for ages. Dr Mould is not the most interesting of characters - there is very little complexity in him. Liza is okay as a character (again, not exactly an original one, but at least vaguely interesting to encounter), and Adeline and Shadwell have at least some semblance of an interesting dynamic, but the characters which intrigued me were all the ones with a little mystery left to them. Rafferty, Makeweight, Mrs Price...

In the end, I think people who like Fin de Siecle, original Gothic novels (Frankenstein, Dracula, Jekyll & Hyde, etc.) might enjoy this evocation of that literary genre. But people like me - who enjoy the aesthetic but want a bit more pace and adventure, and less description and fewer backstories - are not going to enjoy The Quick.

Rating: 2/5

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