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Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Books – The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds

Star rating – 8/10

This historical novel is partly based on true life events, when the paths of the poets John Clare and Alfred Tennyson crossed in a random way via a mental asylum called High Beach, on the edge of Epping Forest in Essex. That sounds like a crazy plot, but this novel, which was short listed for the Booker this year, but lost out to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, is evocatively and beautifully written by Adam Foulds.

John Clare is an inpatient at High Beach – who is slowly loosing his grip on reality, and imagines himself, and those around him, to be many different characters. He is on a desperate mission to escape into the forest that he so loved to explore in his youth, and succeeds in spending nights under the stars in the company of the local gypsies. The connection that Clare makes with them, and the empathy that each has for the other is a touching detail.

Alfred Tennyson comes to High Beach to accompany his brother, Septimus, who is a patient there. Here he encounters the founder of the institution, Matthew Allen and his large family. He causes the young passions of one of Allen’s daughters, Hannah, to stir. She ‘walked and recited the remarkable facts to herself – a poet, tall, handsome, strong, dark – and out of her thoughts he appeared. Under the bell of her skirt she stumbled, seeing him, but continued forwards, calm, preparing her smile. What would happen? In her mind, the apex of their next encounter was, outrageously, a kiss, his large arms around her and the fierce kiss kindling where their lips touched.’

Foulds considerable descriptive powers convey the dark mystic power of the forest, and the brooding atmosphere of the asylum with great skill. We learn of dark secrets in the Allen family, and watch the money making scheme of Matthew unfold. We feel the full horror of High Beach, the desperation of its inhabitants, and the cloying atmosphere in which Allen brings up his family.

This is a beautiful novel, in which Foulds impresses with his distinctive creative style. I can’t say if it should have won the Booker without reading all the other books on the short list, but for me it was certainly a more powerful and evocative read than the recently declared winner.

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