7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Beautiful evocation of time and place, not entirely satisfying though.,
This review is from: The Quickening Maze (Hardcover)
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.