When 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.