The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds #manbooker

In comparison with other Man Booker 2009 novels, this one is fairly lightweight in length, though it masks decidedly heavy content. The novel is centred around a private asylum for residents with mental health problems, and here we encounter the asylum's Doctor Matthew Allen, a number of residents (most notably poet John Clare), members of the Doctor's family and poet Alfred Tennyson, a newly arrived village resident.

The book is lyrical, and, parts of it at least, resemble extended poems. There's a surreal quality to the passages about John Clare, as he battles with delusions, a craving for the outdoors and a crisis of identity. It's a book that easily transports the reader into various states of mind, especially those that typify the condition we would normally associate with poets and those of pubescent girls.

Though there is a narrative thread of sorts, there's a sense that the novel doesn't set out to tell a story – the action is fragmented and obscure – it rather seems to give an impression of certain characters, allowing the reader to inhabit them for a little while. Allen's story seems to vie with Clare's as the driver for the book, and for me, it was the actions of Allen that were the most interesting.

The book could easily have been bogged down by the historical weight of the characters, but it successfully side-steps that trap to offer something else. The novel is certainly creative; a lyrical derivation from fact, but there just wasn't enough to it for it to grip me.

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