Review: The Quickening by Mari Biella

The Quickening is above all a novel of mood. It has a pleasing quality of intriguing familiarity that brings other writers and their works to mind while at the same time setting out its own unique ambiance. As an old-fashioned atmospheric ghost story, the author’s style suggests that of a young Wilkie Collins or a less-ornate Edgar Allan Poe. The feel and theme of the story inevitably bring to mind Henry James’ classic, “The Turn of the Screw.” The isolated house and flat marshy landscape of the setting remind one of William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland, although Biella’s story is pure horror without the science-fiction elements introduced to such tales by Hodgson. The intelligent cosy conversations between Fairweather and the local medic, Doctor Devonald, echo similar talks between those in charge in the upper-class adventure novels of John Buchan. The creepy spiritualist, Mrs. Marchant, with her dramatic séance (one of the novel’s most powerful scenes) recalls the supernatural thrillers of Charles Williams. In short, The Quickening rests comfortably among the works of some of the English language’s most entertaining writers.

The Quickening Cover

If you enjoy period ghost stories that generate a sustained atmosphere or mood, The Quickening is a feast.

Lawrence Fairweather, a typical gentleman of the late 19th century, narrates the yarn and Biella does an excellent job of catching the formal and slightly florid prose style of the times. Like so many characters in more-traditional English novels, Fairweather does not seem to have a job and is, in fact, an unambitious gentleman botanist of leisure.

Beneath the skilfully maintained mood, this is also a psychological novel. We see the thoughts and feelings of the rather conventional Fairweather as he narrates the story, and watch through his steadfastly rational eyes as a strange “presence” in the gloomy country house erodes his wife Julia’s sanity. The home’s sole servant, a superstitious conspiratorial housekeeper, only worsens the dreary situation. “‘I have faith in impressions, ma’am. There’s often something in them, though I don’t know why or how … Mr Fairweather would think us as superstitious as savages, if he could hear us!” And all the while, little Hazel, the couple’s disturbed and increasingly neglected child suffers in fearful silence.

The interplay among the characters is both interesting and revealing. The stolidly sensible Fairweather, who rationalizes every uncanny incident, contrasts with the slightly eccentric Dr. Devonald who, although he professes to be a man of reason admits, “… I’m afraid that we men of science are not always as rational as we’d have the world believe.” He is as good as his word, naively and irresponsibly allowing Julia an excess of drugs. “As for your wife – well, the chloral is more of a benefit than a peril, I assure you. She’s been taking it for months with no ill effects; she told me so herself. She has taken laudanum in the past, at my direction.”

Yet even he mocks the foolish romanticism of his sister Sophie, telling Fairweather that, “She has a taste for the old and the ruinous, and is adamant that the electric light will drive every last ounce of romance from the world.” Sophie brings her friend, the exotic spiritualist, Adelaide Marchant, onto the scene and the already fraught situation begins to unravel. We have the fateful séance: “Mrs Marchant dropped into her chair and spread her hands over the table in the manner of a stage conjurer. Her eyes swept across our assembled faces, and her features lost their cast of slight amusement and became sombre.”

Julia Fairweather is weak and visibly unstable, swiftly falling victim to the more forceful personalities around her as she seeks to embrace – at any cost – what she believes is the ghost of a lost child. Sophie and the sinister Marchant reveal their unfeeling recklessness as these stronger women pursue their own impulses at the wounded Julia’s obvious expense.

For those who enjoy period ghost stories that generate a sustained atmosphere or mood, The Quickening is a feast. The contrast between Fairweather’s sober rational worldview and that of the irrational people with whom he must deal is illuminating. Julia’s plight is saddening. While the ending is not completely unexpected, the novel builds towards it with an inexorable sense of foreboding and despair.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

9 thoughts on “Review: The Quickening by Mari Biella”

  1. Thank you so much, Thomas – not just for the review, but for making it such an intelligent and insightful one. Your good opinion means a lot to me, as I suspect that you’re something of a tough customer when it comes to your reading matter!

    Thanks for the comment, Lucinda. Your novel ‘That Scoundrel Emile Dubois’ is on my Kindle, and has been added to my (now very lengthy) ‘to read’ list.

  2. I enjoyed your book very much, Mari, especially the dark moody scenes in the house and the atmosphere out on the fens. I’m very partial to those companionable male conversations like the ones between Fairweather and Dr. Devonald having developed the taste while reading John Buchan’s numerous novels about Richard Hannay, Edward Leithen, and Dickson McCunn. Buchan is a master when it comes to telling an engrossing story in a rustic setting (e.g. *The Thirty-Nine Steps*) and your own novel does equally well. I gather that your next novel strikes out in a fresh direction and I look forward to reading that one when it is no longer cryptically described as a WIP.

  3. Mari, I bought your Kindle version yesterday and I will begin reading it today. As I don’t have a Kindle (my intention of getting myself one for Christmas went West when I had to spend the money on something else!) I will have to read it on screen
    but I’m looking forward to it anyway.

  4. Lucinda, EPUB and Kindle (sometimes called Mobi) are different formats for the files used by ereaders. They are not compatible so you have to get the right format for the ereader you are using. I assumed you were, like me, an EPUB user but planned to buy a Kindle ereader as well so you could read those Amazon exclusives. Kindle belongs to Amazon. I went EPUB because I buy my ebooks from KOBO here in Canada and they have the EPUB format.

  5. No such luck, Thomas, I haven’t got either a Kindle or a Kobo yet, so tend to whinge for Word versions from people whose stuff I’m reviewing. I couldn’t resist this one though, loving classic ghost stories! So Kobo is more used in Canada? It’s sold by WH Smith here.

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