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.