The Quickening Maze

The Quickening Maze

Book - 2009
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Based on real events in Epping Forest on the edge of London around 1840, The Quickening Maze centres on the first incarceration of the great nature poet John Clare. After years struggling with alcohol, critical neglect and depression, Clare finds himself in High Beach Private Asylum - an institution run on reformist principles which would later become known as occupational therapy. At the same time another poet, the young Alfred Tennyson, moves nearby and becomes entangled in the life and catastrophic schemes of the asylum's owner, the peculiar, charismatic Dr Matthew Allen.

For John Clare, a man who had grown up steeped in the freedoms and exhilarations of nature, who thought 'the edge of the world was a day's walk away', a locked door is a kind of death. This intensely lyrical novel describes his vertiginous fall, through hallucinatory episodes of insanity and dissolving identity, towards his final madness.

Historically accurate, but brilliantly imagined, the closed world of High Beach and its various inmates - the doctor, his lonely daughter in love with Tennyson, the brutish staff and John Clare himself - are brought vividly to life. Outside the walls is Nature, and Clare's paradise: the birds and animals, the gypsies living in the forest; his dream of home, of redemption, of escape. Rapturous yet precise, exquisitely written, rich in character and detail, this is a remarkable and deeply affecting book: a visionary novel which contains a world.
Publisher: Toronto : Vintage Canada, c2009
ISBN: 9780307399106
Branch Call Number: FOULDS
Characteristics: 258 p. ; 21 cm


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Jul 27, 2012

This book was obviously written by a poet. It is post-modern narrative fragments about the nature poet, John Clare, set in 1840. Clare is in a private asylum run by Matthew Allen, with Tennyson a nearby character. It rang true somehow.

patienceandfortitude Feb 22, 2012

Very interesting and well written. A historical novel, with some characters who are caught up in madness, others who are trapped in pride and the young who are searching for a meaningful life. The narrative jumps from person to person, which can be confusing at times. It is also unclear what is real and what is madness, but that is part of what makes the book interesting.

debwalker Dec 08, 2010

An intricate homage to two nineteenth-century poets.

May 17, 2010

This book went pretty quickly, but not to the benefit of the story.

Like a broken record player that alternately skips and speeds up, the narrative jerks around and doesn’t spend enough time dancing with each character. The time it does spend is often to an unfamiliar song that I can’t catch the tune of, but want to.

I liked the portrayal of Tennyson, even without knowing much about him to begin with. His was a portrayal that was served well by the skipping needle of the narrative because when it landed on him the song was deep and evocative and the mystery was appropriate. For the characters that aren’t famously historical, this approach just didn’t give me enough time to get to know them or figure out what was going on with a lot of them before the mad dance abruptly stopped.

Dec 25, 2009

I enjoy discovering new authors (to me) by reading selections from the Booker lists. A melancholic poetic book set in a mental asylum in Victorian England. Shortlisted in 2009.

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