THE QUICK, by Lauren Owen. Random House, 523 pp., $27.
For most of its first 100 pages, Lauren Owen's "The Quick" resembles nothing so much as Evelyn Waugh's beloved novel "Brideshead Revisited" -- it's about a young Englishman at the turn of the century in love and enthralled by his paramour's enigmatic family. But the similarities end with a jolt on page 101; suddenly, there's a shocking attack by something otherworldly. So much of the fun of "The Quick" is in its twists and turns that if you are of a sensitive disposition and inclined to write angry responses to critics who spoil plot points, all I can do is entreat you not to read the last word of this sentence, which is "vampires."
That word barely appears in "The Quick," as demure a novel of bloodsucking as was ever written, but it does plenty of work -- the creatures themselves are undead, uncaring and averse to living beings like us (the Quick of the title), who smell like we're rotting -- and, from their perspective, we sort of are.
The book follows James Norbury, poet and victim of the aforementioned attack; his brave sister, Charlotte; a murderous scientist named Augustus Mould (from whose diary come details about the vampires' world); and a child vampire named Liza. The bond between Charlotte and James is beautifully delineated, as is Charlotte's relationship, late in the novel, with a former partner. The book's final pages contain its most genuine emotions -- the Gothic atmosphere is rich and sure, and Owen brings her characters together deftly. "The rabbits were still there, bolder than ever," Owen writes of her heroine's return to a childhood haunt. "As left the path, they passed a great rook, which hopped a little way from them and then took to the air with a forlorn caw. Apart from this it was very quiet; there seemed to be no other creatures but themselves left in the world."
It's surprising how much storytelling here pleasantly dead-ends or implodes, leaving major characters dead or abandoned without much impact on the central narrative. It's no easy task, in fact, to locate the central narrative; Owen already has, in this first novel, mastered backstory and lore, but it's not always clear why she's picked this character and not that one to show us in interesting detail. That's not a handicap, exactly; more of a puzzlement. The story zips through more than 500 pages with incredible speed, and that's enough to recommend it highly. But of its accomplishments, the best is surely what it promises for Owen's future.