Review: The Quickening Maze

Locked in a world of words

By David Herman, June 17, 2009

The Quickening Maze
By Adam Foulds
Jonathan Cape, £12.99
Reviewed by David Herman

Adam Foulds’ first book, The Truth About These Strange Times (2007), won him The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award. He followed this with The Broken Word (2008), a verse novella set during the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya, which also won awards and critical acclaim.

The Quickening Maze could not be more different from both. It tells the story of the 19th-century poet, John Clare, who went mad and was locked up in a small private asylum in Essex.

One of the other inmates is Septimus Tennyson, the melancholy brother of the famous Victorian poet, who moves nearby, to be close to his brother. Foulds’s short novel moves between the stories of Clare, the Tennyson brothers, the other inmates, and the asylum-owner, Matthew Allen — chemist, phrenologist and a pioneer of the moral treatment of the mad, perhaps the most interesting character of them all.

Although set in a madhouse, the novel is neither about the causes or treatment of mental illness. Nor is it a sensationalist account of the gothic terrors of the Victorian asylum. Patients are occasionally abused, locked up in the dark hole when they become violent, and there is one tremendous set-piece, where Dr Allen tries to get one of his more violent patients to have a bowel movement after three weeks of constipation. But the novel is more about isolation, sadness and failure than about insanity.

Dr Allen’s institution is set in a forest, and he and his family, as much as the patients, are cut off from the world. The relationship between the two poets is typical of this world of isolation. They pass like ships in the night, Clare obsessed with his brief heyday, when he was taken up by London society, and Tennyson grieving over the death of his friend, Arthur Hallam, and the condition of his brother, Septimus. Hallam’s death will become the subject of his great poem, In Memoriam, and will later establish Tennyson as one of the great poets of the Victorian period.

There is no driving plot but what makes this book such a delight is Foulds’s astonishing turn of phrase, his ability to create a fascinating group of characters and his skill at evoking a bygone world. Foulds has a tremendous gift for language. Whether his future lies with poetry or the novel is still hard to say, but he is already one of the most accomplished writers of the new generation.

David Herman is the JC’s chief fiction reviewer

Last updated: 4:32pm, June 17 2009