Courtney Johnston's Reviews > The Quickening Maze

The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds
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's review
Dec 29, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: books-about-books, biography, borrowed, fiction
Read from March 04 to 10, 2011

In this very quiet, very beautiful book Adam Foulds takes a historical moment, replete with well and lesser-known historical personages, and breathes radiant life into it.

Foulds takes as his subject the private mental asylum run by Dr Matthew Allen at High Beach, Epping, where in the late 1830s the 'peasant poet' John Clare - by that time already passing out of fashion - is an inmate. Septimus Tennyson - Alfred Tennyson's brother - is a fellow inmate; Tennyson is not yet Lord Tennyson, the Poet Laureate, but still a young man mourning the death of his intimate friend Arthur Hallam, who died four years earlier.

All three are real personages - the asylum really existed, Clare really was an inmate (and really did, famously, escape and walk home, nearly killing himself); it really was run by Allen, who really did have a history of mad schemes and debt, who really did enlist Tennyson in yet another scheme (a machine that would mechanically turn wooden decorations) that led to Allen's bankruptcy and Tennyson's own financial imperilment.

Foulds tells a story however that feels new and fresh, not in the least a stately or spectacular re-enactment. Over the course of seven seasons we follow different residents at High Beach - Allen's euphoria and eventual desperation over his invention; Clare's gradual descent deeper and deeper into madness; Tennyson's slow brewing of the great lamenting poems that would make him famous; Allen's outspoken daughter Hannah's pursuit of Tennyson; the religious ecstasy of Margaret/Mary, who escaped a violent husband and enters into a pact with God.

Foulds shows us both intimate, sometimes even funny moments, such as Hannah's flustered attentions to Tennyson, and then her humouring of another suitor's flustered attentions towards her. And he shows us frightening and brutal scenes, often set in the part of the asylum Allen (by all accounts a tolerant man, who tried to heal his patients through conversation and preaching) does not visit, where inmates are beaten and raped. Each of the key characters is granted their own arc, and slowly attended to throughout the book: Foulds doesn't stage his scenes, but seems almost to observe these happenings.

Eschewing drama for observation, Foulds' language is beautiful. When Margaret has a visitation:

The wind separated into thumps, into wing beats. An angel. An angel there in front of her. Tears fell like petals from her face. It stopped in front of her. Settling, its wings made a chittering sound. It paced back and forth, a strange, soft, curving walk that was almost like dancing. It reached out with its beautiful hands to steady itself in the mortal world, teaching leaves, touching branches, and left stains of brightness where it touched.

When John Clare meets a group of gypsies in the forest, and watches them butcher a deer:

The gullet was separated and the weasand was drawn from the windpipe. They cleared the chest of entrails. The heart and lungs were snicked out and placed in a bowl, then the long rippled ropes of the intestines were hauled out and dropped into the trench. Working from the back, the chuck, saddle and loin portions were removed from the ribcage and spine in one piece, both sides together like a bloody book the size of a church Bible.

When Clare is beaten in the asylum:

Stockdale drew back his right hand and threw his fist into John's face. He saw the attendant's knuckles suddenly huge, big as the palings of a fence with creases of shadow between them as his eye was struck, a vivid visual arrest he was still pondering when the second shadowy blow swum like a pike towards him and knocked him out cold.

'The Quickening Maze' could be a heaving mass of tensions: class, sex, poetry, money, power. Foulds' radiant language doesn't obviate these tensions, but he treats them not with a lightness but a coolness, a calmness, that lets the human stories hold us rather than being used as symbols.
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