As mentioned in a previous post - my latest fiction reading was The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds. This book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and the Guardian review piqued my interest, so I checked our library catalogue to find that as usual they did not let me down. (In fact, our library seems to be excellent at stocking all fiction nominated for various literary prizes - unfortunately when it comes to poetry, it's another matter entirely).
The Quickening Maze is based on historical characters - it deals with the period in the life of the poet John Clare when he was a patient in the asylum of Dr Matthew Allen, a man who had progressive notions on the treatment of mental illness. Alfred Tennyson also features in the book , bringing his brother Septimus for treatment.
It was the story line featuring the two poets that intrigued me from the review, but in the end the highlight for me was not so much that poets were featured, but that Foulds is himself a poet, and that it shows in the language. Sensitive descriptions abound, but it is always appropriate to the story, and he doesn't let words run away with him to the extent that it detracts from the flow of the story.
For example the patient Margaret is visited by an imagined angel:
There were feathers in the clearing, three of them, connected at their shafts, a scrap of torn wing. They stood on one edge, shuddering like the sail of a toy boat in the breeze. Around them the dark leaves and frail flowers of bluebells that glowed here and there where the sun struck through.
Margaret sat and heard the wind pouring in the leaves overhead. She had fallen in the river once, as a child, and heard the rushing deafness of drowning. But she had been saved. The flowing of the air around her seemed to intensify, to grow louder, until it was so powerful it reversed her breath. It almost lifted her from the ground.
The wind separated into thumps, into wing beats. An angel. An angel there in front of her. Tears fell like petals from her face.
Although it was the poetry connection that attracted me in the first place, what impressed me most was the handling of mental illness. Each of the patients is sensitively depicted, and each is quite unique, differing in their frailties and delusions from each other. It is not a long book, (unlike the eventual winner of the prize, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, but I found it a many-layered and satisfying one.