The Quickening Maze
by Adam Foulds
I knew it. When reading Foulds' enjoyable first novel I had a feeling that this was a writer capable of much more. His latest sees him begin to really deliver on that promise with an ambitious and lyrical tale of madness and poetry set in Epping Forest. Until recently I lived pretty close to the forest, a wonderful, wild expanse which has the effect of recharging your batteries when you're suffering from a bit of city fatigue. Foulds has gone back to the late 1830's, when the forest was presumably larger and even more untamed, a time when the 'peasant poet' John Clare was incarcerated in High Beach Private Asylum, an establishment run by Dr Matthew Allen, a man who we will see is every bit as distracted as some of his patients. At the same time another poet, Alfred Tennyson, moves into a neighbouring village with members of his family including brother Septimus, a melancholic, who will become another charge of Allen's.
Fould's takes these historical characters and events and compresses the action into the course of seven seasons. These changing seasons and the natural setting allow him to make the most of his descriptive skills, especially through Clare who 'loved lying in its lap, the continuing forest, the way the roots ate the rot of leaves, and it circled on.' The neat twist if you like is to have the nature poet Clare confined to an institution, frustrated and taunted by the surrounding forest which he longs to wander in. His frequent forays beyond the bounds bring him into contact with a group of Gypsies with which he eats, fights (his delusions include his belief to be the prize fighter Jack Randall and Byron amongst others) and makes merry, but also into conflict with Allen, whose scrutiny and protectiveness take him further and further into confinement.
The asylum's buildings have differing characters, 'Fairmead House was full of gentle disorder, idiocy and convalescence...Leopard's Hill Lodge was full of real madness, of agony, people lost to themselves' and within those walls we meet many of its inmates, some of whom will narrate parts of the novel. One haunting presence is Margaret, who feels a 'Silent Watcher' within her, 'the thing that watched it all happen, that wanted her to live'. She seems to waste away as the novel progresses, her visions and delusions becoming stronger and stronger even as her body deteriorates.
She sat in the light of the window and looked almost too frail to bear its blast. He could see her fingerbones sharp and yellow through the cracked skin. The dent of her temple looked like the result of some violence. The skin of her face had drawn so tight that her lips were pulled against the hardness of her teeth.
Dr Allen is of course living there with his own family and it is his daughter Hannah who becomes a large focus of the novel. From the moment we meet her she is a bundle of skittish energy fixated on partnering herself to someone and with the imminent arrival of the Tennyson's desperate 'to know which of these two men her interest should fall upon'. Spotting the melancholic not as simple a task as you might think with Alfred moving 'slowly, as though through a viscous medium of thought, of doubt.' Hannah's increasing delusions in matters of the heart make her as likely a candidate for her father's ministrations as any of his actual patients.
For Alfred Tennyson the stay near Epping becomes a doomed investment of time and finances in Allen's latest venture; the Pyroglyph, a mechanical wood carver with which he hopes to mass produce carved wooden furniture. In fact as the seasons pass Allen's erratic behaviour comes closer and closer to that of his charges and Foulds' use of so many characters and voices brings to mind, as Peter Parker pointed out in his TLS review, a line from A Midsummer Night's Dream which I remember copying out as a teenager.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet/ Are of imagination all compact.
John Clare could be said to be the character who inhabits all three of those roles and it is through him that Foulds really impresses. The book isn't perfect, with so many alternating voices in just 260 pages it lacks the cohesion and unity which might have been achievable in a larger novel, but the writing is of such delicious richness that he has played the rather canny trick of leaving your audience wanting more rather than less. Sometimes it only takes a few words, like the blackberry 'so tart it made his palate itch'. But when Clare is given more rein the writing really takes off.
He presses himself to the tree, looks down and sees the roots reaching down into the earth. The admiral's hands. He has them himself for a second, thick rooty fingers, twisted, numb. He shakes his hands and they're gone.They reappear at his feet, and clutch down. The painful numbness rises, his legs solidifying, a hard rind surrounding them, creeping upwards. He raises his arms. They crack and split and reach into the light. The bark covers his lips, covers his eyes. Going blind, he vomits leaves and growth. He yearns upward into the air, dwindling, splitting, growing finer, to live points, to nerves. The wind moves agonisingly through him. He can't speak.
Stands in the wilderness of the world.