December 6th, 2010

rose muse, seasonal muse

Book 118: The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds

Book 118: The Quickening Maze.
Author: Adam Foulds, 2009.
Genre: Historical Fiction. 19th Century England.
Other Details: Hardback. 261 pages.

The Quickening Maze is based on real life events and is set in and around the High Beach Asylum in 1840. The asylum was located within Epping Forest, which proves an extremely atmospheric setting for this dark, melancholic novel.

Among the patients is the great nature poet, John Clare, who is battling with alcoholism and depression. Another young poet, Alfred Tennyson, has come to live nearby while his brother Septimus is receiving treatment at the asylum. The director of the asylum is Matthew Allen, a man with very liberal attitudes towards his patients encouraging them to talk about their problems and assigning them therapeutic tasks. Tennyson is still very much a struggling poet, who is finding it hard to come to terms with the death of his close friend , Arthur Hallam.

Foulds chronicles the individual dramas of the patients, including John Clare's frightening disintegration into madness. The Allen family's fortunes are also explored.

Foulds is a poet as well as a novelist and this is evident in the book's style which is lyrical and yet economical. There are some scenes that are fairly disturbing including the fine line between reality and delusion as well as the conditions at Fairmead House, the locked portion of the asylum, where away from Allen's supervision more disturbed patients are brutalised by attendants and each other.

The book was short-listed for the 2009 Man Booker Prize and it is very obvious why it impressed the judges. I found it a very intense novel.

Book 66 for 2010

Tongues of Serpents by Naomi Novik 347 pages

The sixth in the Temeraire series. I'm going to put this under a cut, because it's pretty much impossible to make any comment on this one without giving away things that happen in the earlier books...

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In the course of the Fifty Book Challenge, I have had several occasions to report on Sherman's March, including the first-person recollections compiled in General Sherman's Christmas, the thinking of the commanders in Grant and Sherman, and the military history from Nothing but Victory.

E. L. Doctorow takes a different approach in The March: A Novel, tonight's Book Review No. 31. The background of the novel is Sherman's March, with a number of the famous events of the march, including the intentional unintentional firing of Columbia, South Carolina, the cutting of a pontoon bridge leaving escaped slaves with the choice of swimming a river or surrendering to trailing rebel cavalry, and the extreme measures used against insurgents and their improvised explosive devices providing the background. The novel concludes with the Army of the Tennessee compelling Joe Johnston's surrender. It being a novel, and it being Doctorow, the reader encounters what happens when a bunch of horny guys with guns have opportunities to fraternize with the local population. I think that's called character development. (Did Civil War volunteers talk like frat boys?) Interesting cast of characters to follow, however. I think that's called ambiguity. It's a novel. It's Doctorow, not Tom Clancy.

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)