Anthony Quinn’s Half Of The Human Race is the story of the relationship between Will Maitland and Connie Callaway, set just before the First World War in an upper-middle class London. The two meet by chance; Will is a professional cricketer, Constance a would-be doctor whose father’s death has removed any possibility of medical training. As her activism in the suffrage movement begins to move from quiet dissent to outright law-breaking, Connie’s political views appear to make the relationship a non-starter.
Call it the Mantel effect, but historical fiction has suddenly become a reputable genre. I doubt Tony Quinn considers himself a historical novelist – indeed, it’s odd that Hilary Mantel has been put in that category on the strength of two books about the Tudors and one on the French revolution – but it is a proper literary challenge to evoke a sense of pre-war Britain without it lapsing into sub-Downton nostalgia. Half Of The Human Race pulls it off. I recommend it strongly to anyone partial to Arnold Bennett and to anyone who enjoys writing with a good sense of place – this is set largely around the streets and squares of Mornington Crescent and the Caledonian Road. It’s just as well I loved it, because I’ve known Tony for a long time. And since we were discussing it for book club, we invited him along to talk.
Having the author in the room is a slightly odd experience. We were on our best behaviour, so the collective dynamic changed entirely; there was no chat about our children, no moaning about the week’s domestic catastrophes. Questions to Tony largely centred on character, motivation and why he was attracted to the early women’s movement as a topic. One of the characters, Tam, is a cricketer who knowing his prowess is failing at the end of his career, eventually commits suicide. This, said Tony, is more common than many realise – cricket has one of the highest suicide rates of any sport. Cricket doesn’t function here as a literary filter of masculinity (thank goodness – Don Delillo’s baseball setpiece in Underworld left me cold) but as wide-angled social framing. Before the First World War it truly was a game for the masses and cricketers were celebrities on cigarette cards.
“While I was writing Half Of The Human Race I agonised now and then about whether the cricket might alienate women readers, or whether suffrage might turn the blokes off,” Tony told me afterwards. “But in the end you just have to write the book you want to write.”
Even if writers pretend otherwise, he says, they all love to have their work assessed. “To have those characters you dreamed up, the situations you put them in, sometimes the very phrases they speak, quoted back at you is validating, sometimes even invigorating. I’m occasionally surprised when some detail I’ve forgotten is picked up.”
To a large extent, writing makes you lose a layer of skin. “I used to write newspaper reviews in which I’d casually dismiss this or that novel, and doubtless hurt the writer in doing so,” he reflects. “I hardly review books anymore, partly because I’m writing myself but also because I know from the inside the painful slog a writer goes through.”
At the end of every book group evening we write our thoughts about the text under discussion and score it out of ten. This makes it sound very earnest when in fact we’re pretty wine-based. (Actually, the reviews log would be a social historian’s dream in a few decades; it ramblingly records not just what we think about books but reactions to current events, London culture, food, fashion and everything in between. I wish I could come across the seventeenth-century equivalent for my academic research; all I’ve got to go on in terms of reader response is Dorothy Osborne’s letters. But I digress.) We’ve done everything from Trollope to Toynbee and have taken in graphic novels and poetry. In case you’re wondering, the top-scoring book ever was Brideshead Revisited and the lowest was the execrable nonsense that was Fifty Shades, but the latter actually prompted one of our best debates, which was duly recorded. We didn’t score Half Of The Human Race with Tony present, but our reviews, even read in the sober light of day, were effusive.
There was only one criticism. The design of the hardback (below left) is beautiful; it’s taken from an original poster and is in the suffragette colours of white, green and purple. However, the paperback cover – not Tony’s decision – pictures a couple in silhouette in romantic pose and is, well, a bit sappy. It’s also a shockingly bad visual spoiler (oops – I just gave away the ending). Do yourself an aesthetic favour and fork out for the hardback.