Friday, 4 November 2011

Anthony Quinn – “Half of the Human Race” book review

Continuing my series of suffrage-themed posts, I’m particularly pleased to be reviewing Anthony Quinn’s second novel, Half of the Human Race (Jonathan Cape, 2011), for a number of reasons. 1) It’s an extremely sympathetic account of suffrage from a male writer, 2) it is only recently published, proving the enduring interest in this important historical period, and 3) it’s an absolute page-turner of a story.
Free spirited Constance is the daughter of a middle-class London family who have fallen on hard times since the father died. When the novel starts in 1911, she has abandoned her hopes of becoming a surgeon, instead taking up a post in a bookshop. However, her interest in the women’s suffrage movement keeps growing and she rapidly becomes involved in a series of increasingly daring stunts in support of the cause.
Alongside this is the story of Will, a county cricketer who falls for Constance, but finds her devotion to politics hard to handle in a world where women are expected to be meek.
The sheer detail that has gone into Quinn’s novel makes it hard to believe this is historical fiction, rather than a novel written in the 1910s. And he writes extremely convincingly from the female perspective, leaving the reader in no doubt that he is fully behind the need for gender equality. The details that are highlighted (from the difficulty of a woman being able to enter the medical profession, to the pressure to marry ANYONE rather than someone suitable) are handled delicately and sympathetically.
In the background of Half of the Human Race is a long-running strand concerning the social stigma of having a suicide in the family, showing how common this sadly is, but also how misunderstood mental illness was 100 years ago. We may think mental illness is stigmatised in 2011, but Quinn’s novel shows the associated shame now is nothing compared to what it was. This alone is an important element of the book that is valuable to highlight.
It is wonderful to see a new novel drawing attention to the suffrage movement, and doing so in such a tender and impassioned way. Quinn has clearly researched his topic inside out and writes with authority on this most important of historical periods. Half of the Human Race is so thorough and detailed in its development that it is hard to believe this is not a rediscovered novel from 100 years ago.

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