Lauren Owen's debut novel, THE QUICK, is one of those books that is hard to write about without giving too much away. I want readers to experience much the same sense of surprise (and more than a little horror) that I did while reading, so please forgive any vagueness here. Chances are it's more or less deliberate!
If you like the novels of Charles Dickens but always wished there was something a little edgier about GREAT EXPECTATIONS and the like, THE QUICK might just be the perfect book for you. Owen, who holds a master's degree in Victorian literature, certainly knows her way around Dickens's London, which she portrays as a place of both promise and peril.
"THE QUICK is a sprawling novel that reads easily, thanks to its quick pacing and nonstop sense of surprise.... Readers may never think of the Victorian period as staid or boring again after reading Owen's thoroughly engrossing debut."
Into this environment, she thrusts James Norbury, a recent graduate from Oxford. James, who, along with his older sister Charlotte, was orphaned at a young age, is heir to a Yorkshire estate. Charlotte, who, as a young woman, has not had the same educational advantages as James, always assumed that he would return to the family home after university. However, much to her loneliness and disappointment, James is determined to find success as a poet and is convinced that a move to London is a necessary evil for an aspiring artist like himself. There he takes rooms with a charismatic playboy, who introduces him (reluctantly) to London society. James, who originally sought an intensely ascetic life of the mind, eventually finds love, but also feels the need to keep his relationship secret, even from Charlotte.
When James, who has recently been working on writing a play, abruptly disappears, Charlotte fears for his safety and travels to London to investigate. What she finds there are secrets, lies, and more than a few horrors --- all centered on the mysterious and exclusive Aegolius Club, composed of members of many of England's finest families. What is James's association with the club? And what are its true purposes? Charlotte quickly discovers the extent of the danger James is in --- and finds herself in peril as well. With the help of an American acquaintance of James and an oddly matched pair of vigilantes, she is determined to rescue her brother --- unless it's already too late.
THE QUICK is a sprawling novel that reads easily, thanks to its quick pacing and nonstop sense of surprise. Owen tells her story through a variety of perspectives and a wide range of characters, which includes a macabre "doctor" and a street urchin who could have been plucked from the pages of OLIVER TWIST (with one important difference). Readers will be kept on edge wondering how these characters' stories will intersect and waiting for the (satisfyingly creepy) payoff of the events that Owen foreshadows in the book's early pages. Throughout, she shows off her evident familiarity with Victorian literature, history and culture, all while maintaining a narrative with a breathlessly forward motion, not an easy feat when the perspectives are divided as they are here.
Readers may never think of the Victorian period as staid or boring again after reading Owen's thoroughly engrossing debut.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on June 20, 2014