Adam Foulds’s debut work of poetry, The Broken Word, won the Costa Poetry Prize last year. It was a fiery, exciting narrative poem concerning a young man’s involvement in the Mau Mau rebellions in Kenya. The Quickening Maze, his second novel, shows a dreamy, contemplative side to his writing, and lacks nothing of the strong, vivid characterisation of both of his previous works (his first novel, The Truth About These Strange Times, was published in 2007). It is a historical novel – although the factual details have been compressed and changed to suit the author – that tracks gently back and forth between a collection of people centred on Dr Matthew Allen’s lunatic asylum. Its most famous inhabitant is John Clare, the peasant poet. He longs ‘to be back in his green jacket, the country clown for his friends ... with their bristling literary talk, their sharp, rehearsed epigrams scattered like cut stones’. But he suffers from delusions: occasionally, he thinks that he is Lord Byron, and that he has two wives. For him, ‘peace would have been lying beneath an oak with them on either side in a sweet, heavy smell of grass’. He drifts around the grounds, making friends with the gypsies, getting into fights, and dreaming of escape, both from the asylum and from ‘the violent machine of poetry’.
Another poet, Alfred Tennyson, arrives on the scene with his melancholic brother Septimus. (‘My word,’ exclaims Dr Allen, ‘the things I’ve been hearing from Septimus. Opium. Spirits. A menagerie also. A monkey. Owls. Innumerable dogs.’) Tennyson’s face is ‘pensive, brooding – how else would it be?’. He provides