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.