The Quickening Maze – Adam Foulds

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 Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2009

The Quickening Maze was shortlisted for the Booker prize on Tuesday, and having read the entire longlist this year I have to say I was very surprised to see it there. I can only assume that this book improves on re-reading – it’s poetic words making much more sense second time round.

The book is set the mid 19th century and centres on a mental asylum in Epping Forest. The two poets, John Clare and Alfred Tennyson, have a strong presence in the book and the historical details of their lives are described as accurately as possible.

I was really looking forward to reading it as I used to live very close to Epping Forest, enjoy historical fiction and find madness a great addition to any story! Unfortunately I was a little bit disappointed, as although the writing was beautiful and individual scenes were captivating, the book failed to fully engage me. The plot had no real forward momentum and the interesting episodes in the book didn’t feel entirely linked.

The large number of characters added to my sense of confusion, perhaps they emphasised the madness present in the mental asylum, but there were so many people fighting for my attention that in the end they just washed past me.

The author is a talented poet, but I’m afraid I’m not a big fan of poetry and so I think much of the beauty of this book was lost on me – it was too quiet.

The wind separated into thumps, into wing beats. An angel. An angel sat there in front of her. Tears fell like petals from her face. It stopped in front of her. Settling, it’s wings made a chittering sound. It paced back and forth, a strange, soft, curving walk that was almost like dancing.

The book was well researched and I loved some of the snippets of historical information. The desire to bury everyone in consecrated ground, leading to sneaking a dead baby into the coffin of a rich gentleman was one such revelation for me. I also loved the descriptions of the forest. The trees seemed to play a more important part in the book than the people.

There was a lot to like in The Quickening Maze, but it didn’t really work as a novel first time round – perhaps a second reading would reveal many more of the subtle layers.

Recommended to poetry lovers or anyone who enjoys quiet pieces of historical fiction.

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18 Comments

  1. Claire says:

    I’m sorry you were disappointed with this, Jackie.
    It is the Booker choice that I am most excited to read but I am keeping it at bay for the time-being and rewarding myself with it once I have read most of the others.
    I like quiet and I like beautifully written so I think this will be another one I’ll love … we’ll see.

    You surely can’t have many of the Bookers left to read now?

    1. Jackie says:

      I think you’ll probably like this one – I look forward to finding out! It did have some very good sections, but just didn’t flow very well.

      I have 3.5 Bookers left. I’m half way through Heliopolis and loving it. I then have The Glass Room and the two which haven’t been published yet. The end is in sight though!

      1. Claire says:

        Heliopolis is brilliant, isn’t it? Loved it.

        Love and Summer has been published now. I am lucky enough to have a copy of Summertime and that’s the Booker I’m reading at the moment. I still have the chunksters to go though and a few others so I’ll be reading down to the wire, I think.

        1. Jackie says:

          I actually have all the long listed books too, but haven’t brought them all with me, so they’ll have to wait for a few days. Hopefully I’ll be able to finish them all before the short list though.

  2. Andreea says:

    I’m sorry that the book was not what you expected. I hope the next one will be better:)

    1. Jackie says:

      I’m half way through the next one already and loving it, so I’m sure it is going to be great, but Quickening Maze wasn’t all bad – there were a lot of good sections.

  3. Beth F says:

    Humm, not sure if this would be good for me. I like quiet, but I like clear and vivid language and too much prose-poetry can annoy me. I’ll have to look through this one at the library before deciding.

    1. Jackie says:

      The first chapter of this book is really good, so a quick look in the library probably isn’t enough to discover if you’ll enjoy it – you’ll have to check it out and will probably end up reading it all anyway!

  4. Sandy says:

    With everything that I have a physiological need to read very soon, I doubt this one will make it to my list. I do enjoy hearing your analysis, though, and ever impressed with your single-minded vision of finishing the Bookers. You are saving us all from the labor!

    1. Jackie says:

      I’m pleased that I can be of some use! Hopefully I’ll be able to get round to reading some of your recommedations when I’ve finished the Bookers.

  5. Steph says:

    I don’t know if the premise is really jumping out at me, but I really loved that excerpt you posted… Maybe on this one we’d be opposites!

    1. Jackie says:

      I love the excerts too! It just doesn’t seem to flow together as an engaging novel – I’d love to hear your thoughts on it though. I’ll keep an eye out for it on your blog.

  6. David Nolan says:

    I’m not sure I am quite ready for another book set in an asylum just yet. I’ve been slowly working my way through Sebastian Faulks’s “Human Traces” for about two months. It too is concerned with mental illness, and indeed with human evolution. You might like it Jackie, for although it is quite slow in plot terms, it also contains a lot of science. It is the first novel I can recall reading that includes verbatim accounts of lectures, though you will not be surprised to hear that this is not one of the features trailed on the back cover.

    “The Quickening Maze”, featuring as it does Clare and Tennyson, is clearly another example of real historical characters finding their way into a work of fiction. This seems to be quite a hot topic at present. There was a very interesting “Front Row” special on the subject on Radio 4 last week, though sadly it is no longer available on the listen again facility. Perhaps not surprisingly many of the novelists and historians interviewed were critical of historical fiction in general, but tended to have nothing but praise for the specific examples that were raised.

    1. Jackie says:

      I haven’t tried Sebastian Faulks yet, but I do have a copy of Birdsong here. I am intrigued by Human Traces – I love books which contain science. I’ll keep an eye out for a copy.

    1. Jackie says:

      Thank you so much! That is so kind of you.

  7. Violet says:

    I don’t like poetry either. So I’m not sure I’ll like this book. But the historical aspect of it is definitely intriguing.

    1. Jackie says:

      I think you’ll probably feel the same way about it – you’ll love the historical sections, but I’m not sure you’d enjoy the book overall.

      PS. I am having trouble commenting on your blog this week. I am able to get the odd one through, but most of the time the comment box isn’t showing up for me. It could just be the poor network I have here – hopefully it will improve when I get back home.

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