Thursday, 24 September 2009

Book Review: The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds

There are very few sane characters in The Quickening Maze. Charles Seymour is one. Locked up at the behest of his father at the High Beach Private Asylum, a lunatic asylum run by Doctor Mathew Allen who is relatively progressive for his time, Charles’ refusal to renounce his unsuitable lady love is the only thing that prevents him from being released. The intelligent and accomplished Doctor Allen, the father of three girls, is not so very sane himself. Despite having gone to prison in the past (on account of debt), Mathew goes ahead with a very reckless scheme for mass producing furniture using a steam-driven machine invented by him. Persuading friends and patients to invest in his venture, the energetic Dr. Allen makes much headway till he realises that his scheme will not work.

John Clare (13 July 1793 – 20 May 1864), who was during his time known as the "the Northamptonshire Peasant Poet" is the leading character in this novel. Lord Alfred Tennyson also has an important role. Clare is mad. Tennyson isn’t, though his brother Septimus and many of his family members are. Clare is the son of a farm labourer with limited education, a man who is so used to living with nature that he finds it intolerable when he is locked up and cut off from forests and wildlife. Tennyson is not particularly concerned with nature. He is at the High Beach Private Asylum solely to take care of his brother Septimus. Tennyson ends up investing in Dr. Allen’s mad venture.

There are many more individuals in The Quickening Maze, many of whom are insane and a few of whom like Dr. Allen’s wife, daughters and helpers are very much sane. All of them have their characters built up and described in very beautiful prose that is very economical and judicious with its use of words. Epping Forest on the outskirts of London, within which the High Beach Private Asylum is located, is one of those characters brought to life by Foulds. Since Foulds is a splendid poet who won the Costa Poetry Award in 2008, The Quickening Maze definitely has a lyrical touch at all times. However, the poetic touch never goes overboard.

One of the things I didn’t like about the Quickening Maze is that it has many characters and Foulds switches from one to another at a breakneck speed, leaving the reader a bit bewildered and even insane at times. Maybe it’s intentional. Another feature I didn’t like is that Foulds does not tell his readers what happens to his various characters. We see Clare slipping into greater insanity, at times imagining himself to be a prize fighter, at times to be Lord Byron. Is there any escape for Clare? We won’t know from this novel. What happens to Alfred Tennyson? Hannah, one of Dr. Allen’s daughters, has an innocent crush on Tennyson and pines away for him. Does she succeed? The reader never finds out. However, Foulds does tell us what happens to Charles Seymour, a man locked up so that he can be cured of his love. Do read this wonderful book to find out.

The Quickening Maze is Fould’s second novel. The first one, The Truth About These Strange Times, won the 2008 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award. The Quickening Maze has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2009, which will be announced on 6 October 2009. In my opinion, this novel has a decent chance of winning the Booker.

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