The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds

10/05/09, The Sunday Telegraph

After the success of his long narrative poem, The Broken Word, last year, Adam Foulds has gone back to the early1840s for his second novel, The Quickening Maze. Real historical figures stalk its pages: John Clare, the nature poet, caught at the time of his first incarceration, from 1837 to 1841, in High Beach Asylum in Epping Forest, where the novel is located; Alfred Tennyson, still a year away from the success of his two volumes of poems published in 1842; Dr Matthew Allen, phrenologist, compulsive entrepreneur, a ‘mad doctor’ with crazy schemes and wild ideas, who ran an asylum in the grounds of his home, Fairmead House, near Epping Forest. In a sense, the book is not totally accurately packaged as a historical novel about Clare for it as much about Allen as it is about the ‘peasant poet.’

Set over the space of seven seasons, it tells two main, intertwined stories, the first one being of Clare’s final year in the asylum, before he gains his freedom and walks all the way back to his native village of Helpston, near Peterborough, convinced that he is going to be reunited with his first love, Mary Joyce; she had died three years earlier. The other story is of Matthew Allen, and his insufficiently rigorous scheme for making easy money by designing a machine called ‘Pyroglyph’, which would mass-produce ecclesiastical and domestic wood-carvings. The hare-brained scheme inevitably fails, not only sinking him and his fortune – he is to die 4 years after these events – but also robbing an investor, Alfred Tennyson (and his fictional brother, Septimus, a melancholic, who is under Dr Allen’s care), of his inheritance.

For a slim book, it is generously peopled and Foulds’s technique, of short, vivid scenes, creates a world entire as the characters crisscross each other’s paths and one of the more memorable achievements of the novel is the sure way Foulds gives every single character, even the minor ones, such as the brutish asylum-keeper, William Stockdale, or Margaret, one of the inmates, who has visions of God and angels, a deep and deft roundedness. He even gives them generous and utterly credible interiorities: the story of one of Dr Allen’s daughters, Hannah, who languishes in love for Tennyson, is just one of these. But the chief pleasure of the book is its prose: exquisite yet measured, precise, attentive to the world.