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.