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.
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.