review: the quickening maze

The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds (2009)

The Quickening Maze belongs to the genre of historical fiction.  It takes actual events in the lives of its three primary characters—English poets John Clare and Alfred, Lord Tennyson and medical doctor Matthew Allen—and fictionalizes those events.  According to the back cover and the acknowledgements, the events in the novel are historically accurate.

But my first task is to summarize what the novel is about. Tennyson and his brother, Septimus, arrive in the community where Dr. Matthew Allen runs an asylum, in which John Clare is institutionalized.  Septimus is to be a patient of Allen’s and committed to the asylum, and Tennyson is there to…well, it seems that he is there to be near his brother as well as write some poetry.  This is a young Tennyson who has yet to receive literary achievement, notoriety, or the position of Poet Laureate of England.  It is six years after the death of his close friend, Arthur Hallam, and the narrative suggests that Tennyson’s time in Allen’s community, his acute grief and remembrance of Arthur, and the setting may have inspired him to write Idylls of the King.  Dr. Allen and Tennyson become friends, but Allen’s great desire is to leave behind the work of the director of an asylum and embark upon some new adventure that will make him a fortune.  He finally hits upon this adventure—he will create a machine that will enable mass production of furniture made by master craftsmen that can be sold at a fraction of the cost.  Upon designing this scheme, Allen sinks his entire life savings into the venture and also secures funding from Tennyson and his family, whose investments come from an inheritance left to them by their father.  He also secures a whole host of other investment capital (indeed, Allen is a kind of charismatic, Victorian venture capitalist). As Allen becomes more and more engaged with this business scheme, the daily running of the asylum is given to a man named Stockdale, a kind of foreman, Allen’s son, Fulton, and his wife, Eliza.  Needless to say, a series of horrors and atrocities are perpetrated within the asylum upon the patients, unbeknownst to Allen. Running parallel to this story is that of John Clare, “the peasant poet” who is slowly descending more deeply into insanity even as he longs for his freedom from the institution.  Parallel to that is the story of Allen’s daughter, Hannah, who imagines herself to be in love with Tennyson and tries to secure his affections and a marriage proposal, but a relationship between them fails to materialize.

If my summary of the novel seems to be a bit disjointed, that’s because the novel itself, at least in my opinion, is disjointed and wandering.  Part of this is a function of the narrative style, which is admittedly my least favorite. The narrative jumps from the interiority of one character to another and then another, most often taking the form of interior monologue, where we get to hear the thoughts and opinions of the character whose mind we are in at that moment.  Anyone who has read A Game of Thrones understands what I mean (though The Quickening Maze doesn’t offer the clarity of separating these transitions into chapters and identifying the name of the character who is narrating that chapter).  It appears to me that the reason Foulds has chosen to implement this narrative style is so that he can tell multiple narratives from multiple perspectives (if I were characterizing him for my students, I’d call his style postmodernist in nature). Thus the novel has many different threads—Dr. Allen’s business scheme, Tennyson’s grief and his struggle to write, John Clare’s struggle with sanity and his desire for escape, Hannah’s pursuit of Tennyson, and other threads I haven’t mentioned her for brevity.  This is what makes the novel problematic for me—there are too many different threads and I didn’t feel invested in any of them.  Additionally, the multi-perspectival narrative style prohibits me from feeling any attachment or identification with any of the characters.  In fact, I found myself turning the pages so that I could get to the end, not because I was especially interested in the ending, in any of the characters, or how their lives turned out.  I think the multi-perspectival narrative style can work (such as in Last Orders by Graham Swift) but it has to be handled well, and it isn’t handled well here.  There’s too much distance between the reader and the characters.  My thought is that this novel would have improved exponentially if there had been one unifying, omnipotent, third-person narrator.

Another complaint that I have about the novel is all of the multiple references to defecation.  Okay, I get it—the author wanted the novel to be realistic in nature, and perhaps these moments were intended to be comic relief, but I didn’t find them at all amusing, and they didn’t add anything to the narrative.  I like to think of myself as a fairly open-minded reader and I’m not a prudish or snobbish reader, but after the third, fourth…eighth seemingly pointless reference, I really had had enough.

The thing is, I really wanted to like this book, and I try to find one good thing to say about every book I review.  This book has been on my to-read list for quite awhile.  The idea—fictionalizing a moment in the life of Alfred, Lord Tennyson—I thought was a brilliant one.  The execution, though, was seriously lacking, and none of my expectations were met.  As I kept reading, I kept hoping that the end of the novel would redeem itself, but instead it became more and more predictable, and more and more disappointing.  The lack of tension and conflict between characters and within the plot made for an uninteresting read.  In the end, I’m left wondering how The Quickening Maze made it to the Shortlist for the Booker Prize. If the novel is on your to-read list, might I suggest skipping it and moving on to something else.

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