Miami Herald // The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds

I wrote a review of a book about an insane asylum while visiting my family on the East Coast. Make of that what you will.

Adam Foulds’ third book is a kaleidoscopic novel of ideas, all of them foolish, delusional, even clinically insane. The picture-perfect depiction of 1830s England, from the squalor of a rudimentary enema procedure to the vagaries of the era’s poetry scene, got this based-on-real-events story shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. And deservedly so.

There isn’t one main character in the usual sense. Instead, a vast cast comes and goes on a chapter-by-chapter basis. Among them is Dr. Matthew Allen, who runs a mental institution outside of London. Allen is a man of science first and foremost, but his interests reach beyond the natural world and the inner lives of his patients. “I think it is unhelpful to specialise too strictly,” he tells a guest. “One must have a broad range of intellectual activities if one is seeking unifying ideas.”

His other intellectual pursuits include the invention of an Industrial Revolution-era machine, the Pyroglyph, intended for mechanical wood carving.

But Allen has trouble with his patients and his potential patents. “When dealing with the mad a virtuous dishonesty is sometimes required. So with his investors: he would mislead them to ultimate rewards. His heart beat light and fast with the pleasure of his own cleverness.” He may, of course, be too clever for his own good.

One of Allen’s earliest investors is Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose poor brother Septimus is being treated for melancholia. The poet plays a considerable role in the proceedings, in part because Allen’s daughter Hannah is so smitten with him. But Tennyson doesn’t exactly reciprocate her affections, and a tragedy of bad manners ensues.

The most colorful of the patients is one John Clare, a pastoral poet in his own right who alternately believes himself to be Shakespeare, Lord Byron and Lord Nelson. He also has a habit of sneaking off and staying out too late, which gets him beat up by his brutish guardians.

Clare’s delusions grow more pronounced as the novel progresses, and the passages told from his point of view include some virtuosic prose. “His thoughts began picking up uncomfortable speed as he looked and realised that those were particular logs being consumed, logs from particular trees burning with particular flames in that exact place at that specific hour and it would only ever occur once in the history of the world and that was now.”

These scenes form a novel that is unconventional in such wonderful ways that I’m forced to wonder why the conventions exist at all. The Quickening Maze will appeal to anyone who lives and works with crazy people, which, by my reckoning, is pretty much all of us.