The Quickening Maze

quickening mazeWhen the Booker shortlist was announced on Tuesday, I had just started reading The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds, and I was delighted to see it make the shortlist because this account of the madness of the English poet John Clare captured my affections almost immediately. Foulds weaves Clare’s story with those of the sanitarium director, Dr. Matthew Allen, and his family, as well as those of various patients in the sanitarium and Alfred Tennyson, whose brother becomes a patient. Foulds takes us inside the characters’ minds, letting us see the sometimes flawed logic behind the things they do.

Because the novel takes place in a sanitarium, we see the inner workings of several minds plagued with madnesses that render them unable to live in society, but we also see glimpses of some less obvious madnesses, such as the madness of a young girl’s crush or the madness of doing whatever it takes to achieve a dream, even if it means lying or alienating your family. Foulds does not judge his characters, but he doesn’t exactly celebrate their folly.

The characterization in the novel is excellent, but the book’s greatest strength of this book is the writing. I’m not usually much of a fan of poetic, mannered prose. Too often, it draws attention to itself, distracting from the characters or the story. And it’s so difficult to find metaphors that are original and not clunky. Given a choice between a clunky metaphor and straightforward, but not especially beautiful, prose, I’ll take the straightforward prose any day. Foulds, however, knows how to write poetically and only rarely does his language jar. His descriptive writing captures his characters’ moods beautifully. Here, for example, we see how he uses Clare’s interactions with nature to show his madness taking over. Clare has been watching a group of marching ants, during a ramble around the sanitarium grounds:

Ants fly over, carry beyond him. He can’t follow them further. Like a lock gate opening in a canal, the water slumping in, his heavy rage returns. He presses himself to the tree, looks down and sees the roots reaching down into the earth. The admiral’s hands. He has them himself for a second, thick, rooty fingers, twisted, numb. He shakes his hands and they’re gone. They reappear at his feet, and clutch down. The painful numbness rises, his legs solidifying, a hard rind surrounding them, creeping upwards. He raises his arms. They crack and split and reach into the light. The bark covers his lips, covers his eyes. Going blind, he vomits leaves and growth. He yearns upwards into the air, dwindling, splitting, growing finer, to live points, to nerves. The wind moves agonisingly through him. He can’t speak.

Stands in the wilderness of the world.

Can’t you just see him becoming consumed by nature, silenced and rooted by his obsession? It’s lovely and frightening.

One of my favorite storylines involves Hannah, the daughter of Dr. Allen. At 17, Hannah feels ready to find the love of her life, and she quickly develops a romantic attachment to Tennyson, just as you’d expect a girl of her age and sensibilities to. Here, we see her watching his house:

Hannah stood and looked at the house where he was living, set behind its own large pond and lawn. Formerly of no significance, this place was now charged and thrilling as a beehive. She stood up on her tiptoes to see more. Taking a few paces up like a ballet dancer to bring a hidden corner of the garden into view, she saw him. Such a tall man, his back turned to her, standing still, in  thick cloud of his own manufacture, wearing that cape. She stood as still as she could, her heartbeats strong enough to unsteady her, absolutely at the edge of her life. Something had to happen soon. It had to.

That phrase—“absolutely at the edge of her life”—captures exactly what it feels like to be 17. And of course that feeling would get wrapped up into the well-heeled poet who’s moved into the neighborhood. It’s just right.

As much as I loved the writing, I was less than impressed with the ending. The book covers seven seasons and mostly offers short vignettes showing where each character is and what is happening in that season. A lot of important events get left out, but it’s usually easy enough to figure out what has happened in between. But in the last few chapters, things seemed to be leaping forward too quickly all at once in every storyline. I wonder if it might have been better to resolve some plots sooner or leave the conclusions of some stories a little more open. Other than that problem, this is an excellent novel, and I’m glad the Booker judges brought it to my attention.

See other thoughts at dovegreyreaderscribblesFarm Lane Books Blog, Kevin from Canada, Savidge Reads, and Table Talks.

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8 Responses to The Quickening Maze

  1. Steph says:

    I first read about this one over at Farm Lane Books, where Jackie felt this was a bad fit for her. But she did post bits of the writing, and I found myself thinking they were really beautiful and wanted to find out more. Thank you for this thoughtful review! Like you, I think I prize good writing, but I don’t like prose that feel arduous and overwrought. A little flourish is nice but overly flowery writing is a beast to get through, I find. So far the writing alone makes me want to read this book, as it feels poetic, but not obtuse. We have a library trip scheduled today – I’m going to see if I can find this one while I’m there!

  2. The writing in this book is amazing, but I think we both shared the same problem with the plot – it just didn’t flow very well and I agree that it got a bit worse towards the end. I am still a bit confused as to why it made the short list – some of the other books were far better. I guess we’ll never know what those judges were thinking!

  3. litlove says:

    Very interesting review. I saw this on the shortlist but knew nothing about it at all until I read your post. Now at least I feel much better informed! But you know what I’d love? I’d love to read a novel that wasn’t about a writer breaking down, but about a writer in the process of creation. I’m bored with Bedlam – it would be great to watch someone really take on the topic of creativity.

  4. Teresa says:

    Steph: The language really is the strength of this book, and if you liked the passages I’ve posted—and that Jackie posted—there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy this. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s out in the US yet. I had to get it through

    Jackie: I didn’t really have problems with the plotting until the last two chapters or so. Before that, I would have said that plot wasn’t the book’s strong point, but that it was strong enough to support the superlative writing. And, oh, boy, based on my Booker reading so far, those judges had some tough choices. I’m not sure I could have chosen between this and Brooklyn and The Wilderness (which I know you were plumping for). My heart says Brooklyn, but…

    litlove: Good thought! The only writers in books I can think of that don’t break down also don’t spend much time writing during the book, so there’s little about the process of creation. Hmm…

  5. savidgereads says:

    I think in general everyone who has read this that I have spotted loved the writing and thought that Foulds has beautiful prose but seemed let down by the ending or plot or characters which is a shame as we have all said the writing is magnificent!

  6. Teresa says:

    savidgereads: Yes, the writing does seem to be universally praised. I think the variation has come in whether the excellent writing is enough. For me, it is, with just a little quibbling about the end. I was enraptured up until then.

  7. Samantha says:

    Hi Teresa – I thought your name was familiar when I saw your comments over at Gaskella, it seems you are listed in my librarything top 50 members with the same books (and I am in yours I think)!

    Anyway, I wholeheartedly agree with your thoughts on Foulds’ The Quickening Maze. It will be interesting to see who finally wins the Booker.

  8. Teresa says:

    Samantha: You are indeed in my top-50, and looking at your blog, I can see that we have a lot of similar reading sensibilities. The Quickening Maze is the only shortlisted book I’ve read so far, but I’m hoping to read at least a few more before the big announcement.

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