Exceptional depiction of the process of insanity
The Lit. Chick
Book review by Heather Brush
“The Quickening Maze” by Adam Foulds, Penguin, 272 pages, ISBN: 0143117793.
As if portraying the characters of two notable poets were not enough, Adam Foulds penned an exceptional depiction of the process of insanity. “The Quickening Maze” is not a brand new book, but it is a memorable one, and it was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. It is based on real events regarding the poets John Clare and Alfred Lord Tennyson. John Clare was admitted, in 1837, to an asylum in High Beach on the outskirts of London after years of struggling with alcoholism, neglect and depression. In 1841, he escaped, only to near starve himself on a foot trek some 80 miles to find his childhood love – by then, deceased. While in the care of his doctor, he continued to write what has been said to be the sanest account of mental illness ever to be penned.
“The Quickening Maze” is the story of the asylum days, told in the viewpoint of Clare, the asylum’s peculiar owner, Dr. Matthew Allen, Allen’s teenaged daughter, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and various local characters and other residents of the institution.
Foulds’ prose is like poetry itself, quietly full of depth and intrigue but straightforward and precise. There is a progression in the chapters that leads a reader to feel the growing insanity of the atmosphere, not just in John Clare but in the doctor, the other patients, the attendants, and society. The chapters grow near chaotic toward the end, demonstrating the intensity of feeling, an example of the ‘quickening’ portion of the title. The stories are an interweaving maze, from the happenstance rescue of a female resident from harm to the near wanton desperation of Dr. Allen’s 17-year-old daughter’s interest in the visiting Alfred Tennyson. Tennyson stays in residence in support of his committed brother, and is a great distraction to the family and ultimately, an investor in Dr. Allen’s ideas.
Of interest to me was the portrayal of the youngest child of Dr. Allen’s, growing up in the company of the insane, building snow creatures with them, seeking affection from these strangers when her own mother would not offer it. And so even the youngest of characters is woven into the plots and becomes a memorable persona.
John Clare is given permission to go outside the walls of the asylum and finds himself amongst the gypsies who live off the land. He is treated as one of them there, but upon his return he is punished for staying out overnight. He is made to endure treatment in solitary darkness. This chapter is especially memorable, deep in the mind of the deranged.
This is not an action packed, demanding attention sort of book, but a novel that quietly gets under your skin and into your brain. It is historical in certain facts and feel and novel in reading, interesting in examination of old treatments and consideration of the mentally ill. The characters involved, whom we recognize but really cannot know, entice a reader to seek an understanding of themselves. This alone would have drawn me in to read the book, but combined with the fine writing and compelling setting, I couldn’t put it down; it haunts me still.