The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds

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The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Elaine Dingsdale
Reviewed by Elaine Dingsdale
Summary: Based on true events, this is a reworking of a time that the nature poet, John Clare, spent in a mental institution. The Tennyson brothers also figure largely in this short and descriptive novel.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: May 2009
Publisher: Jonathan Cape Ltd
ISBN: 978-0224087469

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I had high hopes of this novel, as it dealt with some fascinating characters, and I thought the idea of reconstructing the tormented years of the nature poet, John Clare, would provide some intriguing insights into this troubled figure. At times, the text was soaring and inventive, and flowed very smoothly indeed - but somehow, the difficult art of combining fact and fiction in this manner, didn't quite work.

Whilst we are given glimpses into Clare's therapies and lifestyle when he was institutionalised, the overall effect is rather jarring. Rather than a rounded and believable portrait, we are given a series of vignettes into the trouble and tormented psyche of the poet. At its best, we witness Clare whilst socialising with the local gypsy encampment, where he savours his few moments of freedom from his imprisonment - surely the cruellest blow for a man who was at one with the natural world. These scenes are excellent, and how I wish there had been more of them!

Likewise, the Tennyson brothers also appear as rather unfinished characters, which is a pity, as this was one aspect of novel to which I was looking forward to with great anticipation… However, their blandness was in part offset by various humorous interludes and comments, so all was not lost.

Perhaps the most interesting characters were the doctor and his family, who were much better delineated. The somewhat enigmatic and inventive doctor (a case of the lunatic running the asylum?), brings a welcome breath of fresh air and originality to the narrative. He appears as a kindly man, dedicated to his patients and his radical ideas and inventions. His daughter's attempts to ensnare the unsuspecting Tennyson are also handled well - the author does well at describing the young girl's confusion and embarrassment, and this facet gives the novel an interesting twist.

The author is clearly happiest and most confident in descriptive mode. The countryside truly came alive, was well detailed, and there was more than a little poetry in his very atmospheric descriptions. But the amalgam of fact/fiction didn't really work terribly well - it felt rather contrived, which is a huge pity. The plot is sparse, but that in itself is not too huge a problem, as the strength of the novel lies elsewhere. In the description of the countryside, the evocation of Clare's tortuous suffering, we attain a glimpse into the troubled mind of a poet, whose work embraced so much more than the Romantic Movement.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag. We also have a review of In The Wolf's Mouth by Adam Foulds.

If this book appeals then we think that you might also enjoy Regeneration by Pat Barker and Past Continuous by Tony Bayliss.

Booklists.jpg The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds is in the Man Booker Prize 2009.

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