Suffragettes and Cricket Whites, goes some way to describe Half of the Human Race. Whilst not a bad novel overall, it is, I feel, deeply flawed. For much of the novel, in particular the opening half, reading it was a mechanical exercise. Just reading one word after another, assimilating what I assume was meant to be a story. There were characters, there was description, there was conflict, there was history; sadly none of it was terribly interesting.
The story follows the on-off relationship between two members of well-off English families. Connie is a woman who knows her own mind. Considering the book opens in 1910 or thereabouts, this isn’t particularly considered a good thing. Will plays cricket professionally, but is otherwise pretty useless. The conflict in the opening half of the novel is generated by Connie’s involvement with the suffragette movement. She rubs up against various society males, chafing them like grit under the foreskin.
As her involvement with the suffragettes deepens Connie’s ideology hardens, causing her to clash with the affable, but blinkered Will. Things reach a head when she is arrested for window-breaking. Will does not understand her motivation, and their relationship founders.
It may be unfortunate that I read HotHR just after Kate Atkinson’s new book ‘Life after Life’. This accomplishes much of what Quinn has set out to do, with considerably more skill. Then it does a whole lot more. In comparison, Quinn’s novel seems staid and verbose. I found his descriptions, though full, leaden and uninteresting.
Beyond the rather flat Will, Quinn’s characterisation is good. Will’s best friend Tam, is a brooding elite sportsman. Awkward but sensitive, he adds a sympathetic counterpoint to Will’s indifference. The various members of Connie’s family are well drawn and add much to the tale, as does her artist friend Brigstock. Each offers their own viewpoint on women’s suffrage, giving the novel depth.
The structure of the novel caused me great pain. The novel opens in 1910, the cover shows a man in uniform, so whilst we might like to imagine Will and Connie are going to get together, we know the War is bound to interpose. Yet it takes a long time to arrive, and when it does, the break in narrative is cynical. Things are left ambiguous, and there is an indefinite leap in time, leaving us to piece together what might have happened. Doing this once might have been forgiveable, but after the short war section, there is another break and jump forward, with the reader left wondering did they or didn’t they?
The war writing is unremarkable, yes it’s emotive, but you have to be a pretty terrible writer not to make the slaughter of the Somme affecting. The novel’s tenet that the army’s commanding officers were indifferent to the plight of their soldiers is covered with greater finesse in the final series of Blackadder.
The structure of one long section, followed by two short ones didn’t work for me at all. It just felt like Quinn didn’t know how to tell his story as a continuous narrative, so didn’t bother. There is some nice imagery in here, in particular a war painting by Connie’s artist friend, but overall, I was left unimpressed. The ending was consistent with what had come before, and therefore satisfactory, but I couldn’t honestly say it was worth the journey.
As I finished Half of the Human race, I was couldn’t help but wonder whether the whole thing was metaphor for a cricket match. Sedate, with occasional pockets of excitement, but above all over long and rather pointless. I should add that this was a book group read, and the other members were all more impressed than I was. They are female, so perhaps as a man, I failed to connect fully with the novel’s central theme. Having said that, I couldn’t shake the feeling that everything in this book has been done better elsewhere.