The Quickening Maze (2009) by Adam Foulds

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The blue bore was one year old yesterday, as I was helpfully informed by WordPress at six o’clock in the morning. Hurrah! I didn’t really imagine, when I wrote my first post in March 2015, that this blog would still be going twelve months later – it says a lot about my own need to rabbit on about books and about the general loveliness of the online community that we’re still here! Thanks readers. It’s been brill. In honour of the bloggiversary here’s a post about Adam Fould’s novel, The Quickening Maze….

My interest in this book was sparked when I heard that it features everyone’s favourite Northamptonshire peasant poet, John Clare. Clare’s home village isn’t far from here so his poetry was rammed down the throats of all the children at my school from quite a young age. As a result he’s always held his own uniquely special place in my heart. I once, on a work visit, had the chance to hold some original drafts of his poems, written in his own hand, and it was one of the nicest moments in my working life. I felt uncharacteristically giddy at the experience. So, naturally, when I heard about this novel I was all over it like a shark with knees.

By 1837, when this book begins, the fad for rustic poetry that briefly thrust Clare into the limelight had already passed. Unable to sell his poems or readjust to a life back on the land he suffered a mental breakdown that saw him locked up in asylums on and off for over thirty years. The Quickening Maze is set during one of his early incarcerations at an institution in Epping forest run by the reformist Dr Matthew Allen.Allen has an impressive reputation and a seemingly happy family life but when Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s brother arrives at the asylum, Dr Allen sees an opportunity that threatens to unravel everything he’s built up so far. The story is told in a series of short vignettes from the point of view of Clare, Tennyson and Allen. They’re joined by Allen’s lovesick daughter Hannah and another inmate, Margaret, who has retreated into a religious mania to escape the horrors of her abusive marriage.

As you can probably tell from this description, John Clare is actually just one figure in a wider troupe of characters but I can quite understand why all the lore around this novel casts him in the central role. Fould’s Clare is a humble but gifted man who’s slowly losing his grip on who he really is. At various times he believes he’s a prize winning boxer named Jack Randall; on another occasion he redrafts some of Byron’s poems in the firm belief that he is Byron. He dwells obsessively on the life that’s been taken from him: the childhood sweetheart he lost, his wife and children at home, the gracious attention of his rich patrons, his raucous months in London at the height of his fame. These parts of the narrative can be rambling, even erratic at times, but they’re very touching and I think they perfectly convey the rush of thoughts in his head as he rages against all attempts to hem him in.

“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.”

The prose is beautifully lyrical but absolutely precise, much like Clare’s poems in fact. Foulds is quite economic with his words – there are no long descriptions and no complex scene setting – but every word is chosen carefully. It feels more intricate, more lavish even, than it probably really is and it’s most noticeable in those chapters devoted to Clare’s narrative.

Sadly, however, Clare was really the only character I connected with and I wonder now whether this had little to do with the writing and everything to do with my existing interest in him. I’m not sure. While I loved his parts of the narrative I thought maybe there was just too much going on overall: too many central characters, too many voices, too many plot strands that didn’t really connect. It meant I could only muster up a vague interest in Allen’s scheme and I found myself a little unconvinced by both Hannah and Tennyson. I still don’t really know what the point of Margaret was. I don’t mind shifting narratives usually but this felt just too unfocussed, too busy, for me. Clare’s narrative was really the best thing in it and the other composite parts never really managed to carry the same sort of weight.

The Booker Prize shortlisters seem to have enjoyed this book far more than I did and all the reviews I’ve since read have been very positive. For not the first time recently I’m left wondering if maybe I am the only person who didn’t enjoy an acclaimed novel. Is there something wrong with me? Or (most likely) am I just in a bit of a reading slump at the moment? Hmmmm. I blame War and Peace.

Top Ten Tuesday: New Year’s Resolutions

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the Broke and the Bookish. 

I’m not one for making lots of new resolutions each year, they never work and I always end up feeling so demoralised! For this reason I’ve kept these bookish resolutions short and sweet (much like my own personal resolutions for 2016: Swear Less, Save More) and have come up with just five to see me through:

1 Finish War & Peace and keep working through Classic Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories. I’ve enjoyed both of these hugely so far and I’m looking forward to being even more engrossed this year. I think I’m a little obsessed with W&P (as my frequent posts probably prove)…

2 Read more books by non-Brits. The overwhelming majority of the books I read last year were written by English authors. I hope to put this in balance this year, possibly by taking part in the Around The World in 80 Books Challenge hosted by Hard Book Habit. This challenge has come at just the right time for me.

3 Use the library more often. I love my local library. I wish I was better at showing it.

4 Tackle my unread book pile. I have no excuse. I’m a hoarder. 

5 Blog regularly. As soon as W&P is finished normal blogging service will resume I’m sure. In 2016 I’m going to try not to leave so many long gaps between posts if I can.

I’d like to think these are all pretty manageable. Wish me luck!

2015 in books

Afternoon all and I hope you’ve had a wonderful break.

I’ve noticed quite a few end-of-year-review posts popping up on my blog feed over the past week and, not wanting to be left out of the fun, I started to look back over my own reading year. This is my 2015 in books and numbers:

In 2015 I read 33 books and 3 short stories

            I failed to finish 1 book

            88% of the books I read were fiction

            The longest book I read was The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

            The shortest was The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

            The oldest was Emma by Jane Austen

            The newest was Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

            36% of the books I read were published within the last fifteen years

            24% were published before 1900

            I read 24 books by English authors

            I also read books by 4 Americans, 2 Frenchmen, 1 German, 1 Dane and 1 Italian

            54% of the authors I read were female

My most viewed post was a Top Ten Tuesday list of my favourite introverted female characters

I’ve never really kept a list of the books I’ve been reading before so I don’t know how 33 compares to other years. I do know that some of the books I read this year were enormous though so it’s a number I’m pretty happy with.

2015 top 5

 

The five books I enjoyed most: I read significantly more than five enjoyable books this year but these are the ones that stick in my mind at the moment. I’m not counting books I reread, just the new ones.

            White Teeth by Zadie Smith (unblogged)

            The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

            84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

            Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

            The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

 

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The books I enjoyed least: I couldn’t think of five, which is nice, so here are four books that weren’t my favourites.

            Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

            Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

            The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

            Dark Fire by C J Sansom (unblogged)

I’m happy that 2015 has been another successfully bookish year. I’ve not read a single book I hated, I’ve discovered some wonderful new authors, reread some old favourites and had a bloody good time in the process. There’s a lot to be pleased about.

Going in to 2016, I’ve still got War and Peace to finish (hopefully anyway, it’d be awful to start the year with a giver-upper) and lots and lots of plans and books to wade my way through. More on these later….

Happy new year all.

 

A beginning…

I decided on a bit of a whim yesterday to start blogging about the books I read. I’m not sure why I’ve not done it before – I’m constantly scribbling my thoughts in margins, on scraps of paper, in a book journal, on the backs of postcards and receipts…. At least now I can try to keep some of this stuff all in one place.

I’ve just finished reading Daniel Deronda so I’ll try and post something on here about it later. The post I started to write ended up being a bit of an essay so it needs editing down first! It’s so hard to get the right tone. Hopefully I’ll get a bit better with some practice. I’m generally not very good at expressing myself in any format so this might do me some good!

Really by far the trickiest part has been coming up with a name for the blog. I mentioned it to P last night and he very helpfully came up with some suggestions. We considered ‘Super Fun Book Times’, ‘The Book Bitch’, ‘Broken Spine’ and several others. I particularly liked ‘The Book Mangle’ as it manages to be both a very loose play on ‘wordpress’ as well as a reference to Neighbours (we were watching a show about the 30th anniversary at the time).

In the end I settled on ‘The Blue Bore at East Cheap.’ We watched The Hollow Crown boxset recently and I vaguely recalled that the Blue Boar was where all the best bits happen in the Henry plays. Ten minutes after setting up my url I remembered that the inn is actually called The Boar’s Head. Oops. By then it was a bit late and I couldn’t be arsed with changing it.

It doesn’t bode well for my future as a blogger but I will try my very hardest.