A Splendid Novel of Victorian England That Transforms Into Something Very Different 100 Pages In

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 5 2014 7:59 AM

The Horror

A splendid historical novel turns into something very different 100 pages in. But don’t stop reading!

Illustration by Sam Alden.

Illustration by Sam Alden

Some months ago, in a foul and nidorous vault, seated at a stone table near a pool in which some strange writhing thing turned slowly in the quag, a murder of marketers made a blood pact. They vowed to keep the plot of The Quick, Lauren Owen’s stunning debut novel, from the book-browsing public for as long as possible. As with The Crying Game and Haydn’s “Symphony No. 94 in G Major,” a surprise lurks within. But unlike those works, the surprise in The Quick changes entirely the sort of story it is, and they—the marketers—were betting that if you knew what it was beforehand, you might not pick up the book. Therefore: No mention of the secret appears in the blurbs or in the jacket copy, which present the novel as a Victorian thriller set in foggy Londontown.

Here’s the reason: The reader who will be drawn to the elegance of Owen’s language and her novel’s layered storyline is not the type of reader who will want to read what it’s really about.

What to do?

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Well, if you want to persuade people to read the book, you don’t let on. You talk around the story, not to it. You keep the secret sub rosa. The publishers of The Quick got it. They knew that sooner rather than later the secret would get out, but they figured that by that time, readers would have generated enough heat to keep the novel afloat. They banked on those first readers falling so hard for the characters, that even when things took their turn, they’d hang on for the long haul.

And things do take a turn. And the publishers were right. People think they know what they want, but they don’t! They don’t know! You live your life, you get up and eat toast in the morning and go to work, you think you know what you want. And then, Lauren Owen comes along, puts all that stuff in a white glove, and slaps you across the face with it. You know nothing, sir! Nothing!

This is all to say this: I’m afraid that if I tell you what this novel is really about, you won’t read it, thereby missing a big, sly bucketful of the most tremendous fun.

I myself picked up The Quick for reasons ignoble: nice ’n thick; gaslit jacket art; slammin’ blurb by Hilary Mantel, Her Majesty of All Things Excellent in a Novel, Historical. At first, The Quick seems like a really terrific, plain old tale of yesteryear—à la John Banville or Peter Carey or Eleanor Catton, wunderkind author of The Luminaries.

Here’s what happens in the droll and moving (by turns) first 100 pages: It’s late in the Victorian era when James Norbury leaves his sister, Charlotte, at their family home to follow the muse poetic to London. He finds lodging, then love, and then poof—he's gone.

This summation, of course, doesn’t speak to the heartbreaking poignancy of the love affair or to the deftness with which the sibling relationship is offered up, or to James’ melancholy, bred in his bones. At a dinner party, Owen writes:

James sat, unable to eat much more, and made a pretense of reading his menu, as dish succeeded dish. He had an odd sensation, watching the other guests eat—so civilized, and at the same time so barbarous, when one really thought of it. How much they consumed, and so politely, teeth and hands so busy, knives slicing.

Indeed, if I have a criticism of the book, it’s that Owen rushes it a little—these first hundred pages—to get to what interests her more. Even so, as Part 1 ended, I was as pinned as a beetle in a cabinet of wonders.

And then things took their turn. I fled to Facebook to whine.

Generally, I like to find my horror in the world around me (war, melting ice caps, the NRA) rather than in my books. But I get it: Writers gonna write, and if you’re hooked, you’re gonna follow. So, I followed.

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