Sunday, 11 October 2009

The Quickening Maze

Of the 2009 Man Booker contenders, The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds was the book that I anticipated the most and I left reading it until last. The blending of fact with fiction and the literary appropriation of history excited me; although historical novels were a recurring feature on this year's Booker lists, The Quickening Maze was the one that initially appealed.

Based on real events in Epping Forest on the edge of London around 1840, The Quickening Maze centres on the first incarceration of the great nature poet John Clare. After years struggling with alcohol, critical neglect and depression, Clare finds himself in High Beach Private Asylum - an institution run on reformist principles which would later become known as occupational therapy. At the same time another poet, the young Alfred Tennyson, moves nearby and becomes entangled in the life and catastrophic schemes of the asylum's owner, the peculiar, charismatic Dr Matthew Allen. [from dust-jacket]

I knew little of Tennyson and even less of Clare before reading. This is a creative and deft exploration of madness. In nineteenth century Epping Forest, the lives of the great poets are imaginatively vividly rendered and Clare's insanity most of all. Rewriting the poems of Byron whilst in the asylum, Clare -in the novel- believed he was Byron and in his mind's decline confused his child love, Mary, whom he hallucinated, with the many Marys that Byron loved.

Foulds is a poet himself but I never found the prose overly-poetic; beautiful words, yes, but accessible, simple, and a demonstrable love-affair with language. Structured through seven seasons with short vignettes and shifting narratives, the novel is very accomplished but I was never fully engaged; I enjoyed the novel but I wasn't captivated. The characters, although interesting, didn't gel for me. The Quickening Maze is a very subtle novel that intelligently blurs the lines between fact and fiction; it is beautifully written and crafted but some of its genius and strong themes could easily be missed in its gentle style. Its power though lies in the raw and intense evocation of the peasant poet's descent into madness and the other characters movement into futility and hopelessness. For fans of Clare and Tennyson and of course those of beautiful prose then this will be a flawless and enjoyable read but for those of us who enjoy compelling narrative and characters, this is somewhat lacking.

[Tennyson upon being asked his opinion of Byron's poetry] 'I remember when he died. I was a lad. I walked out into the woods full of distress at the news. It was the thought of all he hadn't yet written, all bright inside him, being lost for ever, lowered into darkness for eternity. I was most gloomy and despondent. I scratched his name onto a rock, a sandstone rock. It must still be there, I should think.'

The wind separated into thumps, into wing beats. An angel. An angel there in front of her. Tears fell like petals from her face. It stopped in front of her. Settling, its wings made a chittering sound. It paced back and forth, a strange, soft, curving walk that was almost like dancing. It reached out with its beautiful hands to steady itself in the mortal world, touching leaves, touching branches, and left stains of brightness where it touched.

She lay in her open grave, miles down, with the sharp voices of the places like dim clouds far above. She lay as still as she could. Her heart kept up its hateful slow tread in her chest. Warm tears that gave no relief now and then rolled into her ears, stopped, started again.


Teresa said...

Sounds like your reaction was similar to mine. The writing is beautiful, never fussy and always appropriate. And I did like the way he developed some of the characters, but the story, especially in the last third or so of the book, just didn't quite gel. I think Foulds is one to watch, though.

Darlene said...

Last week, I listened to a Guardian Books podcast which featured the author discussing his book. I quite liked him as a person and became intrigued by the book. Thanks for your review Claire!

Vivienne said...

After seeing this book over the last months, I didn't have a clue that it was set in my old home territory of Epping Forest. I shall definitely need to read it now.

Steph said...

I know pretty much nothing about either Tennyson or Clare, but I still really want to read this book! All of the snippets of writing have been so beautiful that I know I have to cast my eyes to this one at some point!

Paperback Reader said...

Teresa, Foulds is definitely one to watch; I would definitely read more of his books in the future.

Darlene, you're welcome! The premise of the book is intriguing and achieved very well, if not completely to my satisfaction.

Vivienne, I hope you enjoy it when you do it; knowing Epping Forest will undoubtedly enhance the reading experience for you.

Steph, the writing is stunning and I found that knowing little about Clare or Tennyson (or really Byron, for that matter) did not impact my reading of it at all and, in fact, probably made it more interesting as it was an education.

farmlanebooks said...

"for those of us who enjoy compelling narrative and characters, this is somewhat lacking."


Were you surprised that it made the shortlist? I thought that it didn't have anything special enough to make it onto the list and was surprised to see it there.

Paperback Reader said...

Jackie, I think in comparison to some of the books that I enjoyed more on the longlist, I was surprised. How to Paint a Dead Man didn't have much of a plot either and you could argue that the narratives didn't gel and yet it was far more compelling than The Quickening Maze.

Anonymous said...

When I read the blurb of this book I couldn't wait to read it the premise sounded like a very me book. Sadly though the prose was stunning it just failed to set me alight and I so wanted it to.

Paperback Reader said...

Simon, on paper (hah) it should have worked for me, but it didn't and I'm not entirely sure why excluding what I've explained in my review about it failing to gel and compel me to read it.