77 of 83 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An insightful recreation, beautifully written
From 1837 to 1841, John Clare, the peasant poet, was a patient in a private asylum in the Epping Forest. Clare and his wife Patty had six children and life was proving increasingly burdensome to Clare, who began to suffer bouts of severe depression, leading to alarmingly erratic behaviour and serious delusions. In The Quickening Maze, Adam Foulds has written an...
Published on 26 Jun 2009 by A Common Reader
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful up close, disappointing on reflection
This slender novel is a thought-provoking, relatively quick, and relatively enjoyable read. Regarding the central character, the real-life poet John Clare, I come from a position of ignorance and it is quite possible that had I known more of him I would have found more to enjoy, or at least more to recognise. But the book is explicitly not intended as history and I think...
Published on 7 Jan 2010 by A. Naish
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful up close, disappointing on reflection,
This slender novel is a thought-provoking, relatively quick, and relatively enjoyable read. Regarding the central character, the real-life poet John Clare, I come from a position of ignorance and it is quite possible that had I known more of him I would have found more to enjoy, or at least more to recognise. But the book is explicitly not intended as history and I think as a portrait of insanity it is effective without any prior knowledge.
The prose is at times quite luminous, and in describing the natural world Foulds has a genuine talent. Certainly he has made great effort to be poetical in his descriptions, and evidently this to widespread acclaim. However I am hesitant to add the possible heresy that at times he seems to have tried rather too hard to find the "right" adjective (often, that is, a strikingly incongruous one). I don't say this in exasperation, since in fact Foulds' vocabulary is not especially showy (though there is a whiff of ostentation), but its usage can greatly affect the flow of the narrative -- it takes a fine judgment to know when to employ some arresting terminology and when to let the sweep of the story carry the reader along. Foulds achieves beauty in the minutiae and in the countless vignettes (the scene in which a deer is eviscerated and cooked is majestic), but this does not to my mind translate into a beautiful novel. In this regard I was reminded of a previous Booker winner, John Banville's "The Sea", which I felt sure to enjoy after the opening pages, but whose pretensions ultimately dwarfed its achievements. That is an unfair judgment in this case (and maybe in the other!) -- there is little of Banville's desperately overwrought prose here, and Maze is probably a superior work to Sea -- but veterans of Banville may have an inkling of what to expect.
My other more serious gripe is with the highly fractured plotting and its consequences. The book's several "chapters" of consecutive seasons are each broken into numerous bite-size chunks whose length can be as short as a few lines, and which are rarely longer than three or four pages. Although this is a great benefit for anyone forced to read in brief interrupted sessions (e.g. on the tube), this skipping around is problematic for delineating and developing characters, and since the whole piece is barely 200 pages, it results in a sizeable cast of largely functional caricatures. There is a stock villain who rapes the patients, a lunatic who worries about God and the National Debt and nothing else, the "Jane Austen" daughter who fantasises about love and marriage to the exclusion of all other interests, and so on. Even the real-life characters are a little thin -- Dr Allen at the asylum, for example, is a central figure but has been rendered narcissistic to the point of farce, and without the shred of a redeeming feature he is not just unpleasant (none of the characters are especially likeable), but also rather implausible. Only Clare, who enjoys the bulk of the most virtuosic prose, comes alive as an individual, and the portrait of his descent into madness is poignant, compelling and thoroughly credible.
77 of 83 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An insightful recreation, beautifully written,
From 1837 to 1841, John Clare, the peasant poet, was a patient in a private asylum in the Epping Forest. Clare and his wife Patty had six children and life was proving increasingly burdensome to Clare, who began to suffer bouts of severe depression, leading to alarmingly erratic behaviour and serious delusions. In The Quickening Maze, Adam Foulds has written an imaginative recreation of Clare's years in the High Beech Asylum, and while the result is firmly fictional, the picture presented is realistic and consistent with the known history.
The book is sparsely written. Foulds does not write lengthy descriptive or scene-setting passages, but each small vignette contributes to a rich picture of the cloistered life of a 19th century private asylum. This is no mad-house. The asylum is run on orderly lines by Dr Matthew Allen, a thoughtful man who likes to get to know his patients. However, the finances of the asylum are precarious and Foulds describes Allen's attempts to mix the cure of souls with mechanical invention and patents. Poor Allen finds his time increasingly spent trying to "diversify his business", but without success.
In the meantime, the patients are allowed a relative freedom, and for a while John Clare is allowed a day-pass from his confinement, a privilege he abuses by staying overnight with gypsies and returning much the worse for wear. I found the section where Clare is with his gypsy friends particularly well-written, showing the considerable research Foulds has put into this book. The detailed description of how to prepare a hedgehog for the pot is particularly enlightening.
Alas, despite his occasional forays beyond the asylum, John Clare's mind is far from peace. When not inhabiting his real persona as the gentle poet of hedgerow and field, he becomes a belligerent prize-fighter, Jack Randall, who picks fights wherever he goes (and the injuries to go with them - perhaps not surprising in view of Clare's five-foot stature and his poor physical health). At other times he becomes Lord Byron and in his more lucid moments actually re-writes some of Byron's poems.
Adam Foulds has cleverly inter-leaved the appearance of another poet into his narrative: Alfred Tennyson, who accompanies his mentally-ill brother during his stay at High Beech. Tennyson lives in a nearby cottage and becomes the focus of attention of the Matthew Allen's 17 year-old daughter Hannah who manages to inveigle Tennyson into conversations as at attempt at forcing his interest in her as a potential fiancée. The two poets, Clare and Tennyson, do not really meet up in the novel other than "in passing", and of course, Tennyson would not have been particularly impressed by Clare's rustic verse, for it took many years after his death before Clare's heritage was fully appreciated.
This is a fine book. Adam Foulds captures atmosphere well and we also get a fine sense of the depths of 19th century Epping Forest - a place holding many secrets and where it was easy to become lost. Readers will gain a strong sense of the secluded little community on the edge of the forest. Foulds has researched the 19th century treatment of mental illness and we gain insight into how one of the more humane asylums operated. Rather than the horrors of the Victorian Bedlam, we get glimpses of a far more compassionate and humane institution built around a domestic world created by a real family and their friends.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great language, original storytelling.,
I read this book because it was selected for my book club read. Out of the 6 of us in the club, 4 enjoyed it, one gave up after page 5 and the 6th didn't see much merit in it. I think it justifies its place on the Booker shortlist. The plot is original and intriguing, and the writing rather beautifully poetic, the sparse but gorgeous language helping to bring alive the natural setting and unfolding story. The plot has been described in great detail by other reviewers, but it is worth stressing that it is about more than just the 2 poets - John Clare and Alfred Tennyson. The story revolves around the world of the eccentric and inventive Matthew Allen, whose antics as head of a lunatic asylum create a page-turning and sometimes dark plot. His daughter Hannah is a daring young woman striving to break free of the constraints of Victorian society, where so many new possibilities are hinted at but, ultimately, seem out of reach. The pictures that Foulds draws of this varied cast of characters are vivid, engaging and shocking, and his depiction of Tennyson is hilarious.
Definitely warrants another read.
24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Two Poets in the Madhouse,
`He'd been sent out to pick firewood from the forest, sticks and timbers wrenched loose in the storm'.
The novel opens with John Clare, the peasant poet, as a village boy exploring the world and finding his way home to his loving mother. It ends with his long walk home to Northampton from Essex and being found by his wife Patty. John Clare has been an inmate of Mathew Allen's asylum - a man enlightened for his day but obsessed with business success and not a good businessman, as we find out in one of the narrative strands of this novel.
Foulds is a poet and imagines himself into John Clare's world very well - his day out from the asylum in the wood, and at one with nature and with the gypsies, is beautifully written and lingers in the mind. It is in sharp contrast to the confusion in the asylum itself.
Allen's daughter Hannah has her own narrative thread - finding a suitable husband - and it is gripping partly because her options are so limited. The Tennyson brothers, from a melancholy family, are staying whilst Septimus receives treatment. Alfred, later Lord Tennyson is the object of Hannah's romantic interest and she takes the initiative, visiting him:
`She thought of a question that might startle him into a renewed appreciation of her. He would know at least how advanced, how daring she was.
`May I ask you, what is your opinion of Lord Byron's poetry?'
Byron is still a daring poet for a young girl to read. She hopes to dazzle him with her intellectual and sensual abilities if not with her beauty.
Clare, in his madness, thinks that he is Byron at times, at times he thinks himself a boxer.
I am never sure about novels based on real characters and this book is certainly not fully successful from a structural perspective - insufficient narrative pull. For me, in this case Foulds' imagination wins the day; atmosphere and language triumph over the narrative issues.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Pretentious. desultory and tedious,
This review is from: The Quickening Maze (Paperback)
Adam Foulds may have an MA in creative writing, but, unfortunately, judging by this effort, he lacks the ability to produce a sustained, engaging and accessible piece of fact/fiction. I have to echo the sentiments of a previous reviewer, in that I found the protagonists dull and two dimensional, and I felt apathetic to their plight. Some descriptions of their states of consciousness and the surrounding landscape are well-crafted, but,the overall effect of this book is unsatisfying and leaves the reader wishing he/she had spent their money elsewhere.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful evocation of time and place, not entirely satisfying though.,
The Quickening Maze is set in a private asylum in Epping Forest. It covers a period of 7 seasons and traces the further descent into madness of John Clare, a previously successful nature poet.
As his fame wanes John Clare has begun a spiral into insanity that sees him believe he has two wives; one his actual wife and the other his childhood sweetheart, Mary. As his mental health deteriorates further he also becomes Jack Randall, a prize fighter and later Lord Byron, whose poems he begins to rewrite.
The asylum is run by Matthew Allen, a man with his own dark past and family issues, in a manner which nowadays we would call occupational therapy. He allows patients freedom of the grounds and to a degree they are allowed to leave the asylum. Clare takes advantage of this and indulges his love of the natural world with long walks in the woods and through spending time at a local gypsy camp. While initially these excursions help his mental health, they eventually contribute to his continued degradation.
At the same time the Tennyson family arrive, the famous poet Alfred accompanying his melancholic brother, Septimus, who is interned at the facility.
The basic idea behind the novel is that these two great poets were in the same place at the same time and what could have occurred if they met.
An interesting concept, but unfortunately one that is not fully explored. Instead we learn a great deal about Allen's hair-brained and bankrupting scheme to create an automatic wood carver, his daughter Hannah's infatuation with Alfred Tennyson and the insanities of a number of patients.
Whilst all of these distractions make for an engaging read, it is almost as if we are skirting around the main issue of the story and never quite get close enough to it.
The Quickening Maze is a beautiful evocation of time and place, Foulds manages to craft a believable world without resorting to flowery overwriting; which must be a temptation when dealing with the machinations of the mind, nature and poetry. Some of the scenes when Clare is walking in the woods are particularly vivid, as are the internal monologues as his mind unravels.
With so many characters though, none of them are given the opportunity to take centre stage and we are left with the feeling of an ensemble piece rather than the intimate study of a relationship. Indeed for the first few chapters I found the rapidity with which he swops character point of view quite disorientating. I was much more interested in the dynamic between John Clare and Tennyson than Allen's daugher's romantic feelings, and found the lack of focus distracting.
To me it feels as if the potential of the idea is never quite realised. The fact that these poets could have actually met in real life is a fascinating dramatic starting point, but here it is lost amongst family drama, adolescent love and financial disasters. Which is a shame.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Passionate and lovely writing,
This review is from: The Quickening Maze (Paperback)
As far as I'm aware, this is Foulds' debut novel, and it's a special book.
I loved some of the turns of phrase, for example in this description of the sight of the beautiful Annabella: "he nodded and sat with a breathy smile in Annabella's direction, squinting as though her beauty were sunlight full on his face".
The narrative is propelled along in small, subtle ways. Each section brings a new dip towards Clare's final madness. The account is presented with hallucinatory clarity, exhausting in its detail, so that in the end you feel you have been part of Clare's nature, or the nature around him, wild and ravaged and finally untameable.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully written, but diffcult to empathise with the characters,
This is a beautfully written and structured book. Foulds creates mazes within mazes. There is the physical and magnificently evoked labyrinth of Epping Forest. Within its shadows lies High Beach Asylum, whose denizens - mad and sane - seem to pass each other without touching, as one might glimpse another person through the hedges of a maze. Then there are the tangled minds of the insane, most vividly evoked in the 'peasant poet', John Clare. There is the interweaving of parallel worlds - one is not always sure what is real and what is being imagined. Indeed, the division between sane and mad is also blurred: the asylum's flawed director, Matthew Allen, has a precarious enough grasp on reality, while the young Tennyson is constantly threatened by his genetic heritage,the "black blood of the Tennysons". If there is a fault to be found with "The Quickening Maze", it is that - for me anyway - none of the characters was rounded and sympathetic enough to draw me INTO the pages. I read it with great appreciation, but without that quickening of the heart which accompanies what Coleridge called the "willing suspension of disbelief".
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A challenging and powerfully emotive novel,
Adam Foulds writes with a maturity beyond his years to produce this stunning masterpiece. Historically accurate, Foulds conveys the contrasting fortunes of two poets; John Clare and Alfred Tennyson as their parallel lives become deeply rooted within the "Abyss of contorted humanity, a circle of hell' that is High Beach Private Asylum in the midst of Epping Forest. The beauty and liberty of nature is what drives the novel as the reader empathetically embraces Clare's life. As he spirals further towards insanity, he desperately holds onto any hope of reality through his childhood affinity with the outside, natural world; "The coloured world had rushed howling in, into the vacuum of his starved senses...He wondered if he was dreaming it all: he'd wanted the world back so much that maybe his crazed mind had made it for him."
The novel eloquently moves through the natural seasons so as to reflect the growing and intense journeys of its gripping characters which gracefully intertwine. Tennyson is drawn into Dr. Matthew Allen's deceptive and sinister conspiracy while Allen's daughter Hannah becomes infatuated with Tennyson.
The Quickening Maze is a powerfully emotive novel that is challenging yet written with great fluency as Foulds competently intertwines Clare's radical delusions with the insanity of the asylums most severe patient; religion extremist Margaret who believes God has rechristened her as Mary. Foulds further demonstrates his great ability as a writer to show great compassion and sadness even when `Mary' is brutally violated by the asylum staff; "Her eyes were dark and open and still. They fluttered slightly in the breath of the shoving man, but their gaze was so deep Byron felt himself almost falling towards them.`
The intricate storyline is difficult to grasp at first read as the novel embraces the multiple personas of John Clare. A second read would be thoroughly recommended to fully appreciate the novels poetic beauty and subtle detail.
An superb, thought-provoking read.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Poetical style of writing suits this novel about John Clare. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2009,
This fictionalised story of the Northamptonshire poet John Clare is beautifully written in a lyrical prose form, which suits the maze of insanity which is John Clare's mind from the time of his voluntary incarceration at High Beach Private Asylum in Epping Forest (1837).
John Clare is not the most well known of nineteenth century poets but if you have heard of him you may know him as the Northamptonshire peasant poet, best-known for his down-to-earth poems of the natural world, influenced by folk songs, folklore and ballads. He undoubtedly had a physically hard life, labouring at various times in an inn, as a gardener, a lime burner, and in the militia. Poetry however was his passion and at the age of twenty-seven his first book of poems was published, `Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery'. Poetry alone, however, was not enough for he and his family to live on and Clare's state of mind suffered from the conflict between his need to write poetry and his need to feed and clothe his growing family (he and his wife Patty had seven children).
Although the story is fictionalised and the time spans are imaginatively played with, The Quickening Maze is historically accurate about John Clare, High Beach Asylum, Tennyson and so on. Where the novel lets itself down a little is in the assumption of a prior level of knowledge by the reader. For the book to have had a broader appeal a touch of editing and perhaps some notes on the historical background, either as a Prologue, an Epilogue or as notes would have been a useful background. Without the background knowledge I can see how, pretty poetical writing aside, this could potentially fall quite flat on the reader. Hence my 4 stars.
I personally enjoyed the novel very much and can recommend it, but to gain the most from this novel I suggest reading some background about John Clare first, and some of his poetry - one of my favourites is `Little Trotty Wagtail' but there are many more delightful poems to choose from.
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