The Quickening Maze , shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, is beautifully written but is limited by a serious absence of narrative unity.
Drawing upon the lives of real people, in real situations, the book is ostensibly the story of the 19th Century English poet John Clare, and his incarceration in Dr Matthew Allen’s High Beach Asylum, in Epping Forest in Essex. The ‘nature’ poet, whose mad hallucinations centre around his first, dead love, Mary, and his own identity — sometimes he is the poet Lord Byron, sometimes the boxer Jack Randall — is denied the company of his muse, the forest, and his wives, the real Patty and the imagined Mary. We follow his descent into madness. But although The Quickening Maze is so described, and although it starts and ends with John Clare, it is not particularly about him. A host of characters make up the tableau at High Beach Asylum. There is Dr. Allen, a seemingly wise and self-possessed medical man who launches into an ill-fated enterprise to sell wood-carving machines and prove to his skeptical family that he is an entrepreneurial genius. There is a young, as yet un-lauded Alfred Tennyson, living in the vicinity while his brother takes treatment, nursing grouses against literary critics, and investing in Allen’s doomed project in a bid to get rich quick. There is Hannah, Allen’s daughter, smitten by Tennyson, and trying touchingly to reel her man in. There are others too, the gypsies in the forest, the patients in the asylum, an aristocrat’s lovelorn son, a business magnate, Dr. Allen’s brutish colleague.
Precise but disparate
Now, to varying degrees, these various storylines are each engaging. The book abounds in apposite descriptions of people’s emotions. The unwavering stubbornness of a lunatic receiving treatment; ’she could hear that he [the doctor] was exasperated, as with an awkward child, whereas it was his understanding that was childish’; Allen’s fatal attraction to ‘risk’; ‘there was a pent force in having things at stake that seemed to charge one’s limbs with energy and made eventual triumph more intense than could be imagined’; Hannah’s curious relief at knowing finally that she can’t have Tennyson;, because now ‘the failure was outside of her body. It was already there, in the green and sunlit day’, are high quality pieces of thought, with writing to match. The setting too, is precisely evoked; Epping Forest, dark and lovely and teeming with interior life, stays with the reader as an abiding presence. Where the novel loses steam, though, is in the big picture. Its various parts never really coalesce, either thematically or structurally. Aside from their co-existence in place and time, John Clare has little to do with Tennyson, or Hannah, or Allen’s wood-carving scheme. And though it is possible for the enthusiastic reader to hunt out commonalities of meaning, running through the different stories- Imagination’s battle with Reality, for example, or simply the ‘quickening maze’ that each character navigates — one feels that the novel should have done more of this work.
Partly, perhaps, this lack of unity stems from the inherent difficulties of transmuting non-fictional material into a single work of fiction. John Clare’s story is both true and interesting. So is Matthew Allen’s. Foulds is thus naturally keen to include both in his book, but the question remains; do they reveal any greater truth, when examined side by side? The other culprit, maybe, is the narrative style that Foulds adopts — one that is becoming increasingly fashionable in contemporary literature. The book unfolds scene by scene, flitting from place to place as a camera would. This allows for vivid images and a sense of compacted meaning, but it is, quintessentially, the style of a movie. It is a transplant, therefore, from a different mode of imagining. Not only does it somewhat distance the author from his characters, to have a metaphorical camera installed in between, but it might also waylay him into pursuing parallel, unconnected storylines, where the more traditional literary narrative, that cuts the whole book from one cloth, would have imposed a desirable unity. So it is in the thick of individual scenes that Foulds’ brilliance shines through; not in the transitions, nor in the whole. That still leaves enough brilliance, however, to make this book well worth your while.