Another Man Booker finalist. I distrust them but keep reading them. The Quickening Maze is an interesting book that I found well written and compelling. Notice I didn’t say it was enjoyable, because I find it hard to enjoy mental illness, and Foulds deftly created a world that indeed felt like a maze.
The book begins with a memory (or is it?) of a young boy going out into the woods. He’s a country boy and as a result should be at home in the woods, only he isn’t. Either he wanders too far or his anxieties control him, he becomes paralyzed by fear and lost. Eventually, he hears the villagers calling him and he stumbles into the arms of his mother. The man is a poet, John Clare, and he is insane. Historically, Clare was a farm laborer turned poet who scrambled to walk between two worlds. On the one hand lauded but treated as someone of a freak of nature for his poetic ability coming from uneducated and uncultured farmer. On the other hand, he had children who needed to be clothed and fed which his writing could not supply. Under mental strain he voluntarily entered Beach Hill House, a private mental asylum run by Dr. Matthew Allen. Historically, Dr. Matthew Allen was the kind of guy who failed at most of his financial endeavors. He lived beyond his means and status was important to him. He engaged in what we would call a Ponzi scheme today to raise funds for his ventures, even getting wealthy patients to give him money. Later, partly because Clare was able to ‘escape’ and make his way back home (almost 100 miles, what?), investigations into Beach Hill House found horrible human rights violations that were considered gruesome, and if your crimes are gruesome by 1840s standards, it was pretty bad. Really, the actual history is so disturbing that one wonders how it could possibly be handled in fiction.
Foulds is to be applauded, really. As the narrative switches focus from John, Matthew, Margaret (another patient/inmate), Alfred and Septimus Tennyson, Hannah (Matthew’s daughter) and the various caretakers it does feel like a beautiful descent into madness. Foulds knows how to create beauty in the ugly and/or terrifying. As John’s delusions grow greater so do Matthew’s ambitions. It is like watching two madmen, one innocent in true mental illness, and one in the grips of greed, envy, and covetousness. Oh, those deadly sins. Meanwhile poor Hannah is desperate to get away from Beach Hill House, she’s also desperate for love which makes Alfred Tennyson a perfect target. Reading (I actually wrote the word watching, because Foulds writes so well that I could SEE her hilarious/pitiable attempts) about Hannah’s efforts to get a flirtation going truly hurt my stomach. It is like having your younger sibling do something horribly embarrassing. On the one hand, you want to make them stop, on the other, you kind of want to see JUST how bad it can get. Trust me, with Hannah, it gets mortifying. The book follows two years from Autumn to Autumn culminating in John’s long walk home.
Man, this book was good. It was also tragic. Fould’s approaches the abuses (rape, beating, starvation) in the creative way from the eyes of the patients/inmates. Are the horrors real or imagined? It is captivating and seems realistic without being sensationalized for emotional effect. I’d recommend this for those who need a good book. I’d recommend this book for those who want to have a sincere self examination. I’d also recommend this book for those interested in the literary contemporaries of Alfred Tennyson and the like.