Adam Foulds: The Quickening Maze

I wrote about Adam Foulds’ second novel The Quickening Maze a few months ago. But when the book was longlisted for the Booker Prize – which, ahem, I predicted – and I looked back at my post, I saw that I had said very little specific about its qualities. My excuse is that I read it in what might be described as a febrile state of mind, and didn’t write it up until a few weeks later, when all I could remember was that I had liked it a lot. So when the book went one better and hit the shortlist, I decided I had to give it another go, or face an eternal position in the bloggers’ hall of shame.

Adam Foulds: The Quickening Maze

The Quickening Maze describes two years in the lives of those in and around High Beach Private Asylum in Epping Forest, in the late 1830s. The asylum comprises Fairmead House – “full of gentle disorder, idiocy, convalescence” – and Leopard’s Hill Lodge , “full of real madness, of agony, of people lost to themselves.”  For a short book, the cast of active characters is considerable. Central are Dr Matthew Allen, owner of the asylum, “chemical philosopher, phrenologist, pedagogue and mad-doctor”, as one academic described him; Alfred Tennyson, then a budding poet who stays near the asylum (for the “different atmosphere”) while his brother Septimus is admitted there; and inmate John Clare, nature poet, out of favour with London publishers (but “the painful heat of hope” is always there) and increasingly out of his mind.

Allen, a responsible and patrician ruler of his community of lunatics, is no stranger to incarceration himself, and longs to make amends for his days in debtor’s prison by renewing his fortune through technological innovations. “He was tired, very tired of the mad and their squalor, and the stubborn resistance to cure of the majority.  His mind strained for an idea of something else to do, some expansion.”  Tennyson has to contend with the attentions of Allen’s daughter Hannah, on the hunt for a husband: when the Tennyson brothers arrive in their carriage, “through the trees she felt them approaching, an event approaching.” Once she sees them both, “she wanted desperately to know which of these two men her interest should fall upon.” (Sadly for her, Tennyson, like John Coetzee, is “deficient in animal spirits”.)  Clare’s madness renders him both free of responsibility but imprisoned by his fantasies: he seeks Mary, “the sweetest of his two wives,” in reality a childhood sweetheart who died. “Time’s walls were the strangest prison.”

Clare is happy only when he is communing with gypsies outside the asylum walls, away from its structures and society. The nature poet feels at home amidst loving descriptions of the dismemberment of deer (“the men had to kick at the dogs who were crowding round the trench to lap at blood”). He perceives his identity to shift: he is Byron, or Jack Randall, boxer. In a novel featuring two poets, written by a poet, it’s no surprise that the prose is so beautifully punchy, expressive and compact, visual and sensual:

For hours as he walked, he re-enacted the incident with much more satisfying and violent conclusions. He could have unleashed his strength. He could have given Stockdale a lick of boxer John, and that would have shown him. Repeatedly Stockdale staggered away, apologetic and impressed, feeling his face, blinking at the blood on his fingertips. John was magnanimous, feeling that as long as the blackguard had learned his lesson, they would say no more about it. Or he didn’t, and John carried on until the man lay knocked out on the ground, breathing through scarlet bubbles.

The fine prose – really a delight in every paragraph – made The Quickening Maze a pure pleasure to read from start to finish. (Even when a scene begins, “He hasn’t evacuated for three weeks now…” and some eye-watering treatment ensues.) The language is beautiful but unforced – and despite its lavish eye for detail, it’s also spare enough that the reader can never let up attention. It gives the impression that Foulds knows his characters so well that he has stripped their scenes bare of unnecessary explanation, leaving just enough for the reader to recreate his story. A winning scene takes place between Allen and his brother Oswald, “frightened, scared and strict,” a Sandemanian; the short scene fills us with the family past so effectively that it makes a satisfying story in itself (“Typical of him to arrive stealthily like this, unannounced, and full of messages about himself, all his little flags flying”).

But the wide net of characters is also the book’s main weakness. Flitting from person to person, though all are well drawn, gives the book a diffuse and unfocused feel. The individual stories, despite the geographical overlap, do not have much in common other than as portraits of various struggles through “the maze of a life with no way out, paths taken, places been.” When Foulds does attempt to bring together most of the characters in one place – for the wedding of Allen’s daughter Dora – the result is one of the weakest scenes in the book. I began to think that Tennyson, and Hannah’s search for love, could have been omitted altogether, and the meatier stories of Clare and Allen’s respective ups and downs given the prominence they deserve.

Nonetheless The Quickening Maze remains a seductive and devourable read, a pointer to Foulds’ considerable gifts.  His first book won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year prize, his second the Costa Poetry Award, and his third has been Booker shortlisted.  To adopt the author’s practice of providing flashes forward to what the future holds for his characters, let me predict a safe place in Granta’s next Best of Young British Novelists issue.  Meanwhile, clear a space in your reading schedules: Adam Foulds is here to stay.


  1. Hi John – interested to see you iked this book so much. I found the “sketchy” nature of both plot and character hard to get past. I also found the depiction of John Clare to be rather brutal and crude. I agree the scene when Clare spends a night with the gypsies is quite wonderful but found it hard to reconcile the delicacy, gentleness and emotional power of Clare’s poetry with the man Foulds describes.

    I also have to say I thought the ending of the book – little more than a reworking in the third person of Clare’s own account of his Recollections Of Journey From Essex – extremely disappointing.

    Maybe I am guilty of a failure to accept the harsh realities of insanity – too often weirdly celebrated in poets – but I think it is also easy to dismiss those with mental problems as brutes…

    Hilary Mantel takes historical figures in Wolf Hall and turns them into living breathing people. I feel in the Quickening Maze that Foulds has done the opposite.

    1. I feel that Foulds has delivered a brave, interesting and highly plausible representation, and that Mantel has marshalled a series of authentically talky, expositionary ciphers, actually. But I’m sure the Booker panel will agree with you, Matthew!

  2. Thanks for the comments guys. Matthew, it’s very good to get a viewpoint from someone who knows more than I do (ie anything) about Clare’s work and life. I didn’t know how closely Foulds had ‘borrowed’ from Clare’s Recollections. For the record, I – in my complete ignorance of the man – didn’t think Clare came across as a brute, but a man equally gifted and troubled (a cliché in itself I suppose).

    I think I am in a minority – perhaps with Lee – in liking this one so much (despite its obvious flaws). Some people on the Booker forum found the language a stumbling block. All I can say is that Foulds’ prose here really pushed my buttons, so there must have been some individual alchemy going on which clearly doesn’t happen for everyone.

    I’m reading Wolf Hall and hope to write about in the next week or two.

  3. I am glad you revisited this one, because it is a book that has steadily improved in my memory in the months since I read it. I was one of those who had trouble with Foulds’ prose (and the wealth of characters in a relatively short book) initially and I think that served to put a pair of blinkers on my first response.

    It was when I started thinking about the title that some of the elements on the book started to re-arrange themselves. Foulds does locate them in a sort of physical “maze” (Epping Forest and the asylum) where parts of the surrounding picture are kept hidden from both them and the reader. And he does create a character “maze” where readers again only see parts of each character.

    When I added to this the “quickening” part of the title (I’m choosing to assume he meant “acceleration” not the first movement of the fetus), the book came into a clearer focus. As incomplete and diverse as the many characters are, they do have one thing in common — life gets worse, at an accelerating pace, for all of them as the book progresses.

    That’s where the cover of the book helped. Just as the stylized roots of the tree don’t intermingle, the characters have restricted interactions — yet they are all participants in the same broader system and all pay a price for it. The Quickening Maze is both a much more complex and much better book than I first thought. I’ll give it a few more months but another read (it took me two to get through it the first time) is definitely on the agenda. This latest review is certainly useful in helping me re-arrange those thoughts.

  4. I liked this one too, and felt it merited a second reading, although I haven’t actually gone back to it yet, but therefore interesting to see your second take on it.

    I felt that the mass of characters helped to reinforce the sense of confusion, madness, shifting personas, lost in the forest etc.

    It was a real treat to read such fine prose though. And skillfully handled I think, I can imagine that prose in the hands of a poet can be a dangerous thing.

  5. A real treat indeed, jem – and I agree that poets’ prose is too often just poetry in paragraphs (see Anne Michaels… if you must). Foulds, by comparison, judges it just right – as he did in his narrative poem, The Broken Word.

    Kevin, your thoughts and summation of the book above seem to me to be spot on. I’ll be keen to see what you make of it after rereading.

  6. Here is a new English writer who really hasn’t made an impact in the US yet. I’m really looking forward to reading this book, especially because your description makes it sound like it is extremely well-written. ,

  7. Thanks anokatony. It is very well written. To be honest, he’s not that well known in the UK either, despite his award-winning books. I do expect that that will change soon.

  8. This week’s New Yorker features a review of The Quickening Maze, written by none other than James Wood. Wood often begins his reviews as a type of essay, which the books support. Not this time:

    It has been a while since I have read a book as richly sown with beauty as Adam Fould’s novel “The Quickening Maze.”

    Unfortunately, it is only available to subscribers, or I’d post a link.

    Now I need to go find my copy I bought during last year’s Bookerthon, which I never got in to. By the way, John, your two reviews got me to purchase the book. Wood’s review only reminded me of that 🙂 .

  9. Trevor, I take it Woods’ overall view was positive? The opening line sounds like one of those which could actually lead to a negative opinion, of the ‘too much beautiful prose’ type.

  10. I wondered if that would be the case since the rest of that paragraph, the entire column of print, was a litany of beautiful lines — again, I can’t remember Wood doing that kind of thing before. But he loved the whole thing.

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