The Quickening Maze, By Adam Foulds

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The Independent Culture

This anguishing tale of the poet John Clare's incarceration in a madhouse in 1840 seems to have been slowly tortured out of Adam Foulds, so great is the empathy between his prose and the demented souls he portrays. As ever, the mad seem the most sensible; the sane quite unfathomable.

Poor Hannah Allen is the daughter of the asylum's director, Matthew Allen. She has fallen in love with their new neighbour, another poet, Alfred Tennyson, seeing past his dirty appearance and not caring about his rank smell. She wants a poet, but he doesn't want her, and his rejection provokes a scene that corresponds painfully with Clare's own delusion that Mary (who, in his mind, is his wife – and a child of 10) is in the asylum with him. The actual object of this deluded affection, fellow inmate Margaret, is being abused by the male staff while director Allen's eye is elsewhere, fixed on a hare-brained scheme that will only grant him another spell in debtor's prison.

With its unflinching look at treatments of madness, and its authentic period feel, this is an appropriately disturbing, while also beautifully written, story of human endeavour – and human failure.