This year, I seem to be unintentionally making my way through Granta’s list of Best Young British Novelists 2013, having read novels from Evie Wyld, Zadie Smith, Helen Oyeyemi, and now Adam Foulds (you can click the author’s name to find my review of their novel). As with the extract of Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird, I enjoyed what I read of Fould’s latest novel, In the Wolf’s Mouth, but this time I decided to start with one of his earlier works – The Quickening Maze, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2009.
The Quickening Maze offers us a view behind the closed doors of the High Beach Asylum in 1840 where the poet John Clare was incarcerated following his struggle with alcohol. As we watch his identity dissolve and his mind disintegrate, we glimpse the other patients in the asylum too. At the same time, the poet Alfred Tennyson has moved nearby and becomes caught up in the plans of ambitious High Beach owner Dr. Matthew Allen.
Along with the beautiful writing, the characters are one of the highlights of The Quickening Maze. John Clare is sensitively drawn, and there’s a subtle horror and sadness throughout as we see his mind slowly disintegrating through his internal monologues. These sections in particular are believably and movingly written. Other patients are well-characterised by Foulds and many passages are given to their perspective throughout. These are interesting and moving at times and, although I’m unsure how they moved the story along, they added to the overall feel and atmosphere of the novel and its setting.
While the blurb of this book made it sound as if John Clare was the main focus of the novel, there are a number of other well-drawn characters – particularly Alfred Tennyson, Dr. Allen, and his daughter Hannah, who all add to the novel. It’s unclear how much of these characters is fictionalised, but they feel very realistically drawn. Dr. Allen’s family in particular are a good addition to the novel, their passages breaking up the almost claustrophobic chapters of Clare and the other patients’ gradual descent into madness.
As always with pieces of fiction that deal with real people or events, I wonder how much liberty the author has taken. At the end of the book, Foulds writes that he has taken events occurring over a number of years and placed them in the time frame of a number of seasons, while the blurb states that elements have been “brilliantly imagined”. While I know that events have been manipulated to fit into the structure of the book, the story didn’t feel rushed. While The Quickening Maze is fictional and should be taken as such, it has piqued my interest in John Clare, Alfred Tennyson, and Dr. Allen though, so I’ll be looking to read some nonfiction in this area. If you have any recommendations, please let me know!
High Beach Asylum was situated in Epping Forest, and nature is frequently described throughout the novel, which feels completely natural because of John Clare’s status as a nature poet. There are wonderful, evocative descriptions of nature, particularly the forest which is richly described, giving me the feeling of being there with the characters, surrounded by the dense trees, the forest floor, the wildlife, and the changing seasons.
The changing seasons are an important part of the novel’s structure and pace. The story seems to drift along – there are no twists or major plot points – and even the ending is quite uneventful, continuing to drift along, so the seasons work to give the book a structure. But this isn’t a negative point – instead, the book weaved its magic through its subtlety.
The Quickening Maze is a beautifully written, moving novel that imaginatively and sensitively tells the story of John Clare and other patients at High Beach Asylum. Fould’s poetic prose is highly readable and sympathetically draws the people linked by the asylum and the patients’ struggles with mental illness.
Have you read The Quickening Maze or any of Fould’s other novels? What did you think?