I think Bookhound and I might, in sum total, have spent longer debating the cover of The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds than I have spent reading it, and that's been long enough.
Now if I'm honest this has been another difficult book to 'get into' and I had tried twice earlier this year and failed which perhaps might have been an obvious clue to its Booker long list inclusion. Eventually I took myself off with the book, a pot of tea and a Do Not Disturb sign as I determined to make progress.
The 1840s and Northamptonshire 'peasant poet' John Clare, of whom I confess I knew very little indeed,(though he does have his own blog ) is committed to High Beach private asylum in Epping Forest on the outskirts of London, under the care of the forward-thinking Dr Matthew Allen. Early success I discover has provided John Clare with unaccustomed wealth rapidly dissipated, with the help of the wrong company, into alcoholic fumes.
Dr Allen is a man harboring a past and many demons of his own, but his ideas for nursing mental health patients is way ahead of his time with listening therapies and a sadly doomed occupational therapy programme with its planned provision of wood-carving work for the in-patients.
John Clare's condition fluctuates from reasonably rational to completely insane as, deprived of his freedom and incarcerated apart from the source of his inspiration, namely the world at large, he descends into madness and falls victim to the old fashioned methods employed at the Lodge, an annex for the most disturbed patients.
In strolls a young Alfred Tennyson becoming a regular visitor to his brother Septimus, also an inmate. Unwittingly flaunting his freedom to roam in the outside world yet hardly seeming to appreciate it as we know John Clare might and rather unwisely investing heavily in Matthew Allen's ill-thought out wood-carving venture, Tennyson, soon revealed as a melancholic seems equally imprisoned by his depression.
Slowly the many forms of imprisonment take shape amongst the other characters in Adam Foulds's novel too.
Meanwhile John Clare is convinced he's Lord Byron and it really is downhill all the way once that happens to anyone in the 1840s surely.
Plenty of other inmates to ponder but also Hannah, Dr Allen's daughter effectively imprisoned in the asylum, which also serves as the family home, by her own inability to catch a marriageable man and becoming preoccupied with this to the exclusion of all else. Setting her cap at Tennyson was doomed to...well, I won't tell you but I'm sure his wife was called Emily.
That blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction seems to be a recurring feature in this year's Booker long list.
Given any opportunity, John Clare seeks nature at every turn,
'Watching this, being there, given time, the world revealed itself in silence, coming to him. Gently it breathed around him its atmosphere: vulnerable, benign, full of secrets, his. A lost thing returning. How it waited for him in eternity and almost knew him. He'd known and sung it all his life. Perception of it now, amid all his truancy and suffering, made his eyes thicken with warm tears.'
There was much I had to sit and read twice because this is a carefully crafted book, on reflection beautifully written and to really absorb and fathom the sheer depths of that takes time and effort. Adam Foulds clearly has the knack of the poetic, limpid prose so beloved by Booker judges and also by me sometimes but as I turned the final page I'll admit I had a bit of a 'so what was that all about moment' and the book has sat fermenting random thoughts at my right hand for over two weeks.
It just hadn't moved me as much as I thought it would and I was stymied, but also keen not to rush my thinking, not to allow my thoughts to be harried and cajoled into something half-coherent (it could have been much worse than this) for the sake of any Bookerthon schedule and producing something here.
I've stared at the cover some more, picked up and browsed Bedlam, London and Its Mad by Catharine Arnold while I awaited enlightenment, debated issues of truth and reality versus fiction with myself and eventually I've come to the conclusion that this is a much better book than I had initially thought.
It took a brief sojourn in the company of Ronald Blythe's The Bookman's Tale on Sunday morning for me to realise that; arriving as I did at one of those scales-drop-from-eyes moments and with it a sudden inrush of understanding about John Clare, about this book, about what Adam Foulds was doing and I rushed off, picked it up again and felt as if I was reading a different book.
I can't be sure but this might have been heavily influenced by Ronald Blyth informing me that Ted Hughes had read The Nightingale's Nest in his resonant, accented yet dulcet and mellifluously sensual tones (ahem...my assumption) at the unveiling of a tablet to John Clare in Westminster Abbey,
Up this green woodland-ride let’s softly rove,
And list the nightingale - she dwells just here.
Hush ! let the wood-gate softly clap, for fear
The noise might drive her from her home of love ;
For here I’ve heard her many a merry year -
At morn, at eve, nay, all the live-long day,
As though she lived on song...
Now I know, I know, novels should stand alone, ought to say just what they have to say and that's that, be judged on those merits alone, but who wants to read like that all the time?
Besides I'm not reviewing. Much of what I want and try to do here is to engage emotionally with what I've read and sometimes that means allowing a book time to tell me what it's doing, a second chance, a third chance even to work some magic, and the reading coincidences that have followed that final turn of the page with this one have been astonishing.
Suddenly John Clare is everywhere I look.
Without that self-induced phase of Keatsian negative capability I'd have missed a trick here and you will have to draw your own conclusions about what that might mean for Booker success or otherwise for The Quickening Maze. It's certainly echoed and resonated much in my mind and now I know a second full read would work well, a third even better perhaps, a first barely touches the sides. Booker long listers require that longevity to make it through to short listing and I have a feeling this one just might.
We got there in the end and it was all enough to make me explore some more of John Clare's poetry too, I'm quite taken with it and will definitely read some more and with apologies to John Clare for the third stanza...
The evening comes in with the wishes of love,
And the shepherd he looks on the flowers,
And thinks who would praise the soft song of the dove,
And meet joy in these dew-falling hours.
For Nature is love, and finds haunts for true love,
Where nothing can hear or intrude;
It hides from the eagle and joins with the dove,
In beautiful green solitude.
The hour comes in with the wishes of the dove
And the books they look on from the table
And thinks the dove, coo, it's time to decide
What's going to be on my Booker shortlist...