Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Book Review: The Quickening Maze, by Adam Foulds

The Quickening Maze
by Adam Foulds
Penguin Books
259 pages

Finalist for the Man Booker Prize

I admit that having a child with special needs impacted my enjoyment of this book. 

Maybe that's not fair, but regardless, it is what it is.  There's no other way to explain why I emotionally cringed every time a character was referred to as "Simon the idiot" or as a "lunatic" or "madman."  And this isn't once or twice in the book - it's fairly frequent throughout the 259 pages.

Now, keep in mind, this is appropriate for the time period in which the book is set - and I had fair warning of this.  The synopsis clearly tells the reader that The Quickening Maze is set in 1837 at High Beach Private Asylum, a mental institution near London.  So, yeah ... you kind of expect the mental health treatment of the day to be a bit archaic (just a tad) than what we know today.  

So I'm trying to put my own personal baggage aside for a moment and focus instead on the other elements of the novel.  I came to this one intrigued.  (A story about poets and insane asylums that's based on true events? Sign me up!)  And sure enough, Adam Foulds grabbed my attention from the beginning, as he introduced Dr. Matthew Allen (the head of the asylum), his family, and the various other patients at High Beach.  Among those patients are John Clare, the nature poet, and Septimus Tennyson, brother of the still-little-unknown-at-the-time of the story poet Alfred Tennyson.  (Alfred "takes a house" nearby, in order to be close to his brother during his stay at High Beach.)

(I didn't know much about either the Tennyson family or John Clare before reading this, which leads to one of my struggles with historical fiction.  I never know what is true and what's false.  That's my own deficiency, I suppose, and one that shouldn't be held against the novel.  In the middle of the novel, I was tempted to pursue the interwebs to see what I could learn about Mr. Clare and Mr. Tennyson, but I didn't want any discoveries to ruin the ending for me - which is what happened with Loving Frank.)

Anyway, so the premise of The Quickening Maze was intriguing.  Once inside its pages, however, I found there not to be much of a plot nor strong enough characters. Most of the novel is about the various patients at High Beach, their interactions with the Allen family, and their own conditions ("he's a melancholic") for being in the institution in the first place.  Not surprisingly, they don't seem to want to be there and they (especially John Clare) tend to wander off the grounds to hang out with a band of Gypsies.  One of the Allen daughters has a teenage crush on Alfred Tennyson.  Dr. Allen himself becomes obsessed with developing a wood-carving machine and falls into a bit of Ponzi scheme of sorts. His wife seems pissed that she needs to do more to help keep the asylum running, when at times it seems that the inmates are indeed the ones running the asylum.  One character is Margaret, but then becomes Mary, who is the deceased childhood love of John Clare's life .... it is all a bit, ironically, labyrinthian (if that's a word.)  Maze-like. The narration is presented almost in vignette form, and I found myself stopping on several occasions to try and figure out where exactly we were and with whom.

The prose is both gorgeous and lyrical ... and at the same time, clunky and cumbersome in parts.  Beth Kephart says it best in her reflections of The Quickening Maze:  "With the important exception of the prologue, which is gorgeous, I was also far too aware, all the way through, that I was reading, by which I mean: I kept studying the composition of the sentences, rather than losing myself to their sense or meaning." I completely agree (with this and with Beth's other reflections).  There is a substantial difference between losing oneself to beautiful writing and knowing that you are reading such words. Other reviewers have said that they thought this would be a quick read because of the short length, but it wasn't because you had to force yourself to slow down and focus on the words.  

Maybe it's me (although I don't think so, because others have had similar issues as mine), but as much as I liked the premise of this one, I just couldn't quite connect and find my way with The Quickening Maze.
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copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.


Elizabeth said...

I loved the book in the way that I love a movie that I escape into -- I left the book in a daze, the kind of daze that reminds me of why I adore reading. I think it sort of eludes review, though -- at least for me.

Trisha said...

I think everyone is affected by the real life situation when reading books. Our experiences really impact how we react, and I don't think that's unfair at all!

I think you make a great point about the difference between engrossing language and beautifully constructed language.

K A B L O O E Y said...

You're always right, so I'm going to pass.