Two summers ago, I struggled to write a review of Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl,” an astonishingly good book that is virtually impossible to discuss without giving away its biggest, most enjoyable twist. Now along comes England’s Lauren Owen with her accomplished debut, “The Quick,” and I face the same problem.
I suspect the novel’s game-changing 100-pages-in revelation will get out rather … er, quickly. This book thoroughly deserves the huge attention it’s going to get, though, so you may not be able to avoid the spoiler. Consider yourself warned.
“The Quick” centers on close-knit siblings James Norbury and his older sister, Charlotte. As the book opens, the socially awkward James, a would-be writer, heads to London after finishing his degree at Oxford. Poor spinster Charlotte, feeling deserted, remains behind on their family’s decrepit country estate.
During James’ last days at Oxford, he overhears a pair of lovers in the library involved in a whispered tryst. His poet’s imagination takes over: “Another kiss,” Owen writes, describing James’ eavesdropping entrancement. “He would be fair also, James thought — barely older than she, innocents both, Daphnis and Chloe in a grave green forest of books. The lovers, as he had seen them in many different names and guises, in many stories and songs.”
He’s brought out of his romantic reverie by the girl’s sneeze, makes a noise himself and gets caught. “You may as well come out,” the man says. “We can hear you breathing.”
That might seem like a throwaway line, but it turns out to be the most important distinction among the major characters of the book: Some are breathing, or “quick,” as in the Bible’s distinction between “the quick and the dead,” and many, in the worst possible way, are not.
Once in London, James ends up sharing rooms with Christopher Paige, the “Daphnis” of the Oxford library meeting. James vicariously enjoys the trappings of Christopher’s family wealth, and the Paiges introduce James to the mysterious Aegolius Club (named for a small genus of owls), among whose members lurk some of the city’s most influential and ambitious men.
Charlotte, meanwhile, eagerly awaits every next letter from James. Then the correspondence comes to a stop, and James becomes unreachable. Panicked, Charlotte travels to London in search of him, and what she finds completely, to use present-day vernacular, blows her mind (as it will readers’). She’s soon immersed in a blood-drenched search for not only her brother, but for justice and a semblance of sanity.
It’s a rare pleasure to see Charlotte blossom from timidly terrified to kick-butt heroine. Early on, she thinks, “Mrs. Chickering had warned her about London. Take the wrong turning, choose the wrong side of Regent Street, and one was lost. The streets would soil one’s shoes and stain one’s skirts; there were pickpockets and foreigners and Irish dynamiters and who knew what else.” Indeed.
Toward the end of the book, though, Charlotte barges straight into the heart of darkness, risking death (and worse) for the sake of her brother and others.
Charlotte and James form the heart of the book, but Owen spins marvelous veinous and arterial characters around them: among them a love interest for Charlotte, a female rope walker turned demon-hunting vigilante and a nonchalantly evil dude with the evocative name Augustus Mould, a.k.a. Dr. Knife. He would give Stephen King nightmares.
“The Quick” is that rare book that reviewers and readers live for: both plot- and character-driven, a stay-up-all-night-reading romp of more than 500 pages that you will desperately wish was double that. This is elegant, witty, force-of-nature writing, and Lauren Owen should have a long and illustrious career ahead of her.
For those like me who are dismayed to see the book end, I’m pleased to report that she’s said she’s at work on a sequel, which can’t come fast enough. Lauren, we beg of you: Be quick.