Ihave always been sceptical of the argument that male novelists cannot write convincingly when they make their main characters female, and vice versa. It both devalues the boundless power of the imagination and elevates all the things that distinguish the genders into an intimidating barrier. Moreover, there are so many examples, both ways around, of authors who written across the divide so wonderfully well as to make it irrelevant.
To which list can be added Anthony Quinn in Half of the Human Race. He has set himself a very particular challenge in this eternal debate. Not only is Connie Calloway, one of his two principals, part of the sisterhood of the Suffragette movement, the other, Will Maitland, is a championship cricketer who operates in an all-male sporting environment. To portray two such gender-specific worlds equally convincingly is a tall order, but Quinn carries it off with aplomb. His impeccable eye for detail, perfect pitch for the nuances of dialogue, and the quiet, understated passion that enlivens his writing – all seen to good effect in his debut novel The Rescue Man – combine here to make his considerable achievement seem effortless.
Half of the Human Race works on several levels. In its historical context, it is the tale of two individuals from the same upper-middle-class background with completely different ambitions. They meet by chance and, almost in spite of themselves, fall in love. Connie's mother and sister have the routine aspirations of their age – marriage and material comfort – but she has her eye on something more, encouraged by her father. His death has curtailed her plans to become one of the first women surgeons.
Her frustration at her powerlessness finds an outlet as she shifts her position on the debate of the day – women's right to vote – from peaceful demands for reform to militancy and law-breaking. The novel skilfully explores both the restrictions placed on women – so shocking to a modern audience that it is hard to believe this happened in living memory – and their less obvious corrosive effect on every other aspect of their lives; notably, for Constance, in her ambiguous attitude to any commitment to a man she knows instinctively that she loves.
By contrast, Will is conventional, as much the product of his upbringing and the expectations as Connie is of hers. His own act of rebellion has been to forsake the professions to play county cricket. In charting Will's close friendship with his team mate Tam, a cricket legend, once on a par with WC Grace but now in the autumn of his years, Quinn paints a telling portrait of male bonding, with its curious mixture of competition, profound affection but instinctive reserve. It is as pertinent today as then, and a good example of the novel's ease in moving between its setting and timeless questions about relationships and aspirations.
There are also vivid descriptions of women's prisons, of the trenches of the First World War, of the sweeping-away of the complacency of the Edwardian age. Quinn's grasp of history is acute, but it is his ambition – and his ability to deliver on it – that impresses most. The Rescue Man won prizes. Half of the Human Race should follow in its footsteps and establish its author as one of our most impressive novelists.
Peter Stanford's 'The Extra Mile' is published by ContinuumReuse content