The Quickening Maze – Adam Foulds (2009)

I read this novel as part of my Contemporary Fiction module at university and I really enjoyed it! Some of the other novels on the course have been a bit of a let down, if I’m being honest, but The Quickening Maze was an interesting one.

The story is very loosely based on real events and concerns the poets Alfred Tennyson and John Clare. Aspects of the story have been manipulated for entertainment, of course, but I really enjoyed seeing how Foulds fit the two lives together. Technically, Tennyson and Clare never meet in the novel, but their stories intertwine through the setting of an asylum run by Matthew Allen.

I was fascinated by the way in which Foulds presents mental illness in the novel. Each character seems to be suffering, both the patients within the asylum and those deemed ‘sane’ enough to walk freely outside the asylum boundaries. For example, Allen himself seems slightly unhinged in his passion for his pyroglyph machine, Hannah is demented in her hopeless obsession with Tennyson and we meet Charles Seymour who is technically a patient, but not mad in the slightest.

Foulds doesn’t present a romanticised version of Victorian Britain, nor does he romanticise the treatment of mental patients – though Allen is presented as a liberal and kind character, treating the patients with respect. This I really respected as there is a tendency with contemporary writers to ignore the muddy bits of history (but those are the best parts…)

Religion is a strong theme throughout the book, most obviously when we meet Margaret (rechristened as Mary) who is a self-flagellating patient at the asylum. Her religion and set of beliefs ignite her eventual downfall which is interesting to follow and almost certainly a comment on the impact of religion on the human psyche.
Another key theme is of searching. With each of the main characters (and there are a few!) we see a search or a longing. Margaret is looking for God, Hannah is looking for a husband, John is looking for Mary, Matthew is looking for money or success, Tennyson is looking for peace, Abigail is looking for comfort, and so on.
I think these two themes interlock perfectly, since faith plays a part in the searching process, whether it is a religious faith or not. The historical ambiguity of the narrator means that the reader is given part of the character’s future with which to reflect upon their past and present. Though the characters do sometimes hijack the narration through free indirect discourse, the omniscient feel of the narration generally allows the reader to follow, somewhat tragically, the path each character will take.

This is a beautiful novel, but it is not a hopeful novel in my mind. It speaks of a nation striving for personal improvement (the pyroglyph is a obvious symbol for this) and of a host of characters which blur into a singular, gathered narration. This blurring of both the characters and the lines between mentally ill and mentally healthy, is what really fascinated me about the book. I would encourage any analytical or historically-inclined reader to give it a go.

There is a graphic scene at the beginning of the novel involving extracting faeces from a mental patient – so it isn’t all as serious and stiff-lipped as I’m making it sound!

Posted by:MJ

20, studying at UEA in Norwich

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