“He’d been sent out to pick firewood from the forest, sticks and timbers wrenched loose in the storm. Light met him as he stepped outside, the living day met him with its details, the scuffling blackbird that had its nest in their apple tree.
Walking towards the woods, the heath, beckoning away. Undulations of yellow gorse rasped softly in the breeze. It stretched off onto unknown solitudes.
He was a village boy and he knew certain things, He thought that the edge of the world was a day’s walk away, there where the cloud-breeding sky touched the earth at the horizon. He thought that when he got there he would find a deep pit and he would be able to look down into it and the world’s secrets.”
Lot of things drew me towards The Quickening Maze: an intriguing concept, a striking cover, and it was shortlisted for last year’s Booker prize. But it was those lovely opening paragraphs that drew me in. I never could resist a well written passage about man and nature.
The child who stepped out into the wood grew up to be the poet John Clare. I didn’t know his work, but I am very pleased that this novel has steered me towards it. Life in the Epping Forest with his wife and their six children became a struggle. He suffered bouts of severe depression, his behaviour became increasingly erratic and he had serious delusions. Eventually he is admitted to the High Beech Asylum.
Dr Matthew Allen runs the asylum in an extraordinarily humane and compassionate way. He treats his patient well, talking to them trying to understand and help. It’s a refreshing change from the usual portrayal of Victorian institutions. Patients are allowed a relative freedom, but it is a freedom that Clare abuses. And his forays do not bring him peace, but his mental health deteriorates still further. It’s a vividly portrayed and heartbreaking story.
And Dr Allen has problems of his own. The asylum’s finances are in a poor state, His efforts to put things onto a firmer footing and advance his work are radical. They may work, but there is a very real risk that they may not.
Meanwhile a very different poet, Alfred Tennyson, accompanies his mentally-ill brother during his stay at High Beech. And he draws the attention of Dr Allen’s 17 year-old daughter Hannah who determines to win his heart.
I know nothing of the real stories that Adam Foulds has built his fiction upon, but nothing jars. Clare and Tennyson do not meet – that might have stretched credulity – they simply pass through the same place.
All of these stories unfold in lovely, sparse prose, moving with the changing seasons. There is much to praise, many wonderful details, lovely descriptions of nature, and yet this book didn’t quite reach the heights I had hoped for.
The trouble I think was this: the multiple storylines and the sparse writing didn’t offer anything to hold on to. And all of the movement between characters held up any forward momentum. No one element was wrong, but the way that they came together didn’t quite work.
And so I found a good book where I had hoped for, where there was the potential for, a great one.