The first 100 pages of Lauren Owen’s “The Quick” offer a portrait of the artist as a young man in late 19th-century England. But just wait. As kids, James Norbury and his older sister, Charlotte, have the run of their decrepit estate while their widower father is absent on business. Governesses come and go, so Charlotte teaches James his ABCs. Skirting their housekeeper’s supervision, the siblings toughen themselves through “ordeals” such as enclosing each other in the narrow priest hole behind a library bookcase — a dare that turns darker when James becomes trapped. Already shy and sensitive, he moves further inward. Soon he’s writing stories.
After graduating from Oxford, James sets out to become a man of letters in London instead of returning to his rural roots. His new roommate, Christopher — wealthy, proud, profligate — overwhelms him with late nights and coarse friends, but in Christopher’s hands James is also introduced to new perspectives and possibilities. One wild night, the two head out for Oscar Wilde’s house with one of James’s manuscripts, and then. . . .
And then I’m supposed to offer an all-caps “spoiler alert” and banish all potential readers of “The Quick” away from this column. Even Random House’s own publicity material skulks stealthily around the book’s actual content, and fans online are already gnashing their incisors worrying that some bloodless reviewer might ruin the surprise and drain the life out of this novel.
SPOILER ALERT: Vampires ahead!
In the novel’s second section, we meet Augustus Mould, a scientist working for the upper crust among London’s undead, members of the ultra-elite Aegolius Club. They would prefer to eradicate the poor, downtrodden class of vampires known as the Alia. To that end, Mould — one of the Quick, as humans are termed — has been given the club’s consent to use these urchins and ne’er-do-wells for scientific experiments. They’ve nicknamed him Dr. Knife.
So what’s James’s role in all this? A simple misunderstanding pulls him into this fantastical world — and eventually draws in his sister, too, determined to protect her brother just as in their childhood.
As part of the recent trend of literary-minded supernatural fiction (more belles-lettrres, less Bella), “The Quick” is ambitious in both scope and structure. The author’s degrees in English literature clearly serve her well as her novel conjures up the sights, smells and concerns of any number of Victorian novels. Her London is exquisitely detailed — those Alia are worthy of a Dickens novel — and she touches on all the key themes: class, power, shifting gender roles. The structure of shifting perspectives punctuated by Mould’s notebook entries echoes Stoker’s “Dracula” and Wilkie Collins’s “sensation novels.”
But the story’s ever-broadening scope ultimately undermines its own ambitions. More characters are pushed to the forefront, many lugging significant back stories.
James vanishes for large swaths of the story — and the remnants of his artistic ambitions are completely forgotten. The Aegolius Club’s recruitment effort, though positioned as a pivotal plot point, never emerges as more than backdrop. And the homosexual themes that emerged in those first 100 pages are all but abandoned in the next 400, fumbling an opportunity for fresh exploration of the homoeroticism that has been ubiquitous in the genre from Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” in 1872 to the present day.
Owen surely inhabits the breadth and panorama of the Victorian tale, but her rush for more stories, more characters, diffuses the momentum of any central storyline or theme. “The Quick” ultimately seems less the result of carefully considered craftsmanship than of an overrich imagination indiscriminately producing, producing, producing.
Amid all that excess, there are still poignant, shocking moments that offer insight into the vampire’s existential struggles. One young man, freshly “turned,” ferries a girl’s corpse through the streets, pretending it’s his sleeping daughter. Elsewhere, a guilt-ridden vampire takes special pains to atone for past violence. But it’s clearly no credit to the author that halfway through the novel I finally fully understood the special plight of the undead: that restless boredom with an eternity seeming to roll out endlessly before them.
Taylor, a professor at George Mason University, frequently reviews mysteries and thrillers for The Washington Post.
By Lauren Owen
Random House. 523 pp. $27