John Clare was a respected nature poet in the 1820’s. But that’s not how we meet him 20 years later in Adam Foulds’ The Quickening Maze. Clare has been incarcerated in the High Beach asylum run by Dr. Matthew Allen, and he is mentally deteriorating despite the doctor’s best efforts to help him. Clare believes he has two wives: his real wife, Patty, and his childhood sweetheart, Mary. He insists on writing poetry to Mary and refuses to listen when anyone tells him he shouldn’t. Clare also wants to spend every minute out in nature. But under the asylum rules, Clare has to be back at night; failure to return results in his outdoor privileges being revoked. But he risks it time after time because he feels like being inside is killing him.
Alongside Clare’s narrative are two other main ones: Dr. Allen begins a new enterprise, turning his attentions away from his asylum in favour of woodcarving. Meanwhile Hannah, one of Dr. Allen’s daughters, searches for love with unavailable men including Alfred Tennyson, who is staying nearby because his brother is at the asylum. I found these two narratives interesting because of how they parallel and contrast with Clare’s own story: Dr. Allen faces many setbacks, which slowly cloud his sunny disposition, while for her part, Hannah manages to grow up thanks to chasing the unattainable.
The Quickening Maze is a beautiful but sad book, giving a look at how quickly life changes and how it can change you in the process.