The Quickening Maze, by Adam Foulds

Reading The Quickening Maze was one of the more interesting challenges of my Booker experience, 2009. On my first effort, I threw down the book in confused disgust after 30 pages, left a grumpy comment on the Man Booker forum and then gave myself a very stern lecture about being fair to the author. My second try was much more successful — while it took more than half of the length of The Quickening Maze to get into the rhythm of Foulds’ book, once that was accomplished it was a much more rewarding reading experience.

Foulds’ last publication was a book-length narrative poem, The Broken Word, so would-be readers of this novel should consider themselves forewarned. Two Canadian poet novelists figured in this year’s Booker longlist speculation — Anne Michaels’ The Winter Vault and Patrick Lane’s Red Dog, Red Dog — although neither made the longlist. While many readers liked those books (particularly the Lane), others found there was too much poet and not enough novelist in both books. The same criticism applies to this book. Of the seven Booker longlist titles I have read so far, it is the most innovative in form. Unfortunately, I don’t think the innovative form succeeds.

The Quickening Maze is set in Epping Forest, just outside London, around 1840. Dr. Matthew Allen, a former bankrupt with wide-ranging interests, has established the High Beach Private Asylum there for treating the mentally disturbed (and “idiots”, a jarring reminder that Foulds does not spare us). One of his patients is the peasant poet, John Clare. Another, recently arrived, is Septimus Tennyson, brother to Alfred who has also taken up residence nearby — Alfred’s melancholy is not so serious as to require that he be a patient, but it is close.

That is only a start on the author’s panoply of plot streams. We also spend a lot of time with Dr. Allen’s teenage daughter, Hannah, who first has a crush on Tennyson; then a dalliance with Charles Seymour, a completely sane heir of noble birth sent by his family to the institution so he won’t elope with his poverty-stricken lover; and finally ends up engaged to a successful manufacturer, Thomas Rawnsley.

Rawnsley is Allen’s advisor on the doctor’s latest project, invention of the Machine, a gadget that will trace hand-done wood carvings mechanically, bringing carved furniture within the economic reach of many more people (and well-deserved wealth to Allen, he believes).

That’s a lot of plot(s), made even more difficult to access by Foulds’ poetic language:

He’d been sent out to pick firewood from the forest, sticks and timbers wrenched loose in the storm. Light met him as he stepped outside, the living day met him with its details, the scuffling blackbird that had its nest in their apple tree.

Walking towards the wood, the heath, beckoning away. Undulations of yellow gorse rasped softly in the breeze. It stretched off into unknown solitudes.

Foulds develops each of these stories over seven seasons — since there is not a lot of action, most of that development tends to be introspective. For the most part, the novel is structured in short segments, visiting each plot line in turn, which often introduces another distraction. It is to the author’s credit that, at least for this reader, by the mid-point of the 260-page book he did establish a rhythm that started to carry the rest of the book.

The individual’s stories are connected, not just by location but also by a growing similarity. Each of the author’s central characters (and there is also a large supporting cast that I have not mentioned) is living in a world of impending, self-induced tragedy. Some may be institutionalized as deranged, others are still in the “real” world but all are headed toward similar fates. It is that sense of “common future”, dismal as it might be, that eventually brings the book together.

The Quickening Maze is not a book for everyone’s taste. I had to work a lot harder as a reader than I did with either Lane or Michaels to cope with the poet-writing-a-novel factor — and I know a number of readers who set both of those books aside as unreadable. On the other hand, I suspect readers who take to poetic language more easily than I do will find this to be a more readily accessible book than I did.

And while The Quickening Maze would not have made my personal Booker longlist, I am happy to see it on the official list. This year’s Booker dozen seems to have put a premium on books that are pretty conventional. One of the expectations that I have of the Prize is that at least a couple of selections will bring attention to authors who have taken some risk with their work and deserve wider exposure. As frustrating as reading The Quickening Maze was at times, it was a worthwhile experience. Readers who are willing to take a chance should give the book a try — I suspect Foulds is a writer who will be heard from in the future.

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17 Responses to “The Quickening Maze, by Adam Foulds”

  1. Trevor Says:

    Glad to see this novel started to work a bit better for you, Kevin. I put it down after I read “undulations” (or “undulating”) and words like it on the first page. Nothing in particular against those words, but it did seem needlessly florid and showy. I put it down mainly because I wasn’t in the mood for that at the time, but I will pick it up again fairly soon, perhaps on our road trip.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I really struggled with the opening pages, both times. It is a shame when a reader has to struggle against the author’s language — I’m afraid that was my biggest problem with the book. There is something there when you can get over that, but I’m not sure that should be the reader’s responsibility.

  3. kimbofo Says:

    Thanks for your review, Kevin. Strangely, it sounds like something I might like, and the bit you quoted has the rhythm of John McGahern’s prose style about it. Interesting that you had to give the book a second try though. Kudos to you for giving it another go – many people would have relegated it to the Did Not Finish shelf and then gone around and told everyone it was a rubbish book!

  4. John Self Says:

    Very interesting that you (and Trevor) should object to the language, Kevin – I must say that it did not strike me at all as a florid or over-written book, certainly not as Lane’s Red Dog, Red Dog did. I wonder why that is? Rather, I thought the language merely elegant and apt. Then again, if you ask me to summarise the story other than in the terms you outline above, I could not do so – but I had long since put that down to reading it at a time when I was finding it hard to concentrate on anything. Therefore I blamed myself for any lack of clarity in my mind – perhaps if I had been reading it in a better mood, I would have blamed the author. It’s short enough anyway that I would consider returning to it. And I wonder if it is one of those books which the judges find will improve on re-reading because the language is less of a barrier – and which could therefore be a dark horse for the shortlist?

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I didn’t so much object to the language as find hard to “hear” — it seemed at odds with the stories the Foulds was telling. Speculating about another reader’s response is always dangerous, but as I recall you read this not long after Dawson’s book about Rupert Brooke and I suspect you had more poetic thoughts in your head than I did when I started. Although having said that I was expecting a book about a poet and that story is rather minor — one of the reasons I had to go back and start the book over again. Your Red Dog, Red Dog reference is also quite relevant because that was another book that I abandoned on first read and started again later with much, much better results.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Whoops. Forgot to comment on shortlist. I’m thinking Wolf Hall and Brooklyn are certain choices and the other four a crapshoot. Probably one of Waters/Byatt, but not both, and then three other books from what is left — I like Mawer, but would put him, this one, Hall and Harvey in a group where the reread is likely to decide who goes forward. While I certainly like Mawer best, I can see arguments for and against all of those four, so would not be surprised if any of them make the shortlist. And I haven’t seen the Trevor or Coetzee yet — can’t help but think that one of them goes to the shortlist since the jury has read the books. From my perspective, this does set up for a “compromise” winner.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    kimbofo: I’ve only read the one McGahern so can’t really comment — certainly this book is not like that one. I also should confess that I went back to John Self’s review of this book after my first effort. I remembered that he had liked it and felt I needed a few guideposts (which his review did provide) for the second effort.

  8. William Rycroft Says:

    Great to read your thoughts Kevin and very admirable that you gave this one a second go. As you know I liked it, and often because of the language. I think this was because I expected something more like it when I read and was disappointed by his debut ‘The Truth About These Strange Times’. I can absolutely appreciate however that it isn’t the easiest book to read and wonder too like John whether that is the very quality which will help it to mature well with the judges.
    I don’t think it’ll win though.

  9. Isabel Says:

    Kudos for going outside your comfort zone and trying again.

    Hope your next Booker read is more fun and not difficult.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Will: I do think that previous exposure to Foulds would probably have made it easier for me to appreciate his language — I suspect both you and John have that edge when it comes to this book. Given the general thrust of the Booker longlist, I will be surprised if this one goes to the shortlist.

  11. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It’s nice that on returning to it, you got more from it. It sounds though, well, flawed.

    Alphabet of the Night, which I read recently, was a poet’s novel and that does raise issues. If you can soak into the language, it can be very rewarding, but if you become too aware of the language I think it becomes a barrier instead. This sounds like it maybe comes a little too close to that particular divide.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    One of the questions I have about my reaction is how much the confusing abundance of story lines, all of them pretty thing, influenced my discomfort with the language. Again, there is a similarity in my reaction to Lane’s Red Dog, Red Dog — at the halfway point in both books I was wondering why I was continuing and then things started to come together. Far more frequently, I get to the midpoint with some excitement and the rest goes downhill. With both these books, the opposite happened. I will be interested in which memory prevails a month or two down the road.

  13. dovegreyreader Says:

    Kevin, I’ve just finished this one today, also struggled to get into it on about three occasions before making myself read on.
    More on it soon when I’ve had time to think it all through.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Look forward to your thoughts, dgr.

  15. offmytrolley Says:

    Hello Kevin. I finished this one last weekend and had no particular problems getting into it. I have to confess that I really liked this book and wouldn’t be surprised if it goes on to win. (So that’s the kiss of death then!)

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I think my initial problems were more about my style of reading, than the book itself. Sometimes I tend to rush past language, when I should be paying more attention. I am happy to see this one go forward since I think Foulds takes more risks than most of the longlist authors. I’d be surprised to see it win but Booker juries have certainly surprised me before.

  17. Guy Savage Says:

    I didn’t like this one at all. I tried.

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