Review: The Quickening Maze

The Quickening Maze

The Quickening Maze
By Adam Foulds
(Penguin (Non-Classics), Paperback, 9780143117797, June 2010, 272pp.)

The Short of It:

Here, madness and brilliance collide in an ethereal, tenuous manner but ultimately, the book falls short of its mark.

The Rest Of It:

This story is based on real events and is about John Clare, famed nature poet, and his stay at High Beach, a mental institution located on the outskirts of London in 1837. Along with Clare, we meet Alfred Tennyson who lives nearby and a host of characters including the hospital’s owners and their two young daughters.

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, I had high hopes. I cannot argue its beauty, as it is beautifully written, but the story wandered in places and never really went anywhere. However, the world that Foulds creates is quite impressive. Mental institutions of the time were horrid places. Even for the well off, the treatment of the patients within often bordered on abuse,  which lends the book a “forbidden” quality that is slightly off-putting.

The idea of a famed poet, wandering around a mental institution opens the door to all sorts of experiences, yet… the experiences are brief, not particularly life changing and sometimes, given the nature of Clare’s condition, I was not sure if something was really happening, or if it was just taking place in Clare’s mind. I appreciated this aspect of the story, because these people were mad!  You can’t rely on any of them to tell the story and so you are constantly flipping pages and rereading passages to see if you read it right the first time around.

I considered this book to be an okay read, but not great. I felt as if the story went off in too many directions and sort of left Clare’s story hanging. There is a lot going on with the children, which is interesting to a degree but that path was also never fully developed. There is a bit of romance too, which seems oddly placed in a book about madness and although there was poetry, there wasn’t enough (in my opinion).  What could have been a really great read, was just okay.

This was my pick for book club but I was not able to make the meeting. I was told, that it was a good discussion though which doesn’t surprise me as there is plenty to discuss.

Source: Purchased
Disclosure: This post contains Indiebound affiliate links.

14 thoughts on “Review: The Quickening Maze”

  1. Don’t blame you for having high expectations. Placing a story in a mental institution in 1800’s London? Serious potential! I’ve never had good luck with Booker candidates. I think maybe these books are too intellectual for me or something.

  2. Not sure if I would like this one or not. I do enjoy books about mental illness for a whole host of reasons, but I think the style and the meandering quality of this one might be less than satisfying to me. I bet it would be interesting to get a picture of what the institutions of the 1800’s were like, but it sounds a little too scattered for real enjoyment.

    1. I think if the author had chosen one path to take, the result would have been better than what was delivered. I was interested in Clare and at times the kids held my interest but neither path was fully explored. Can you imagine growing up in a mental institution just because your parents run one?

  3. How disappointing! While I love a book that is beautifully written, I need the plot to feel complete or at least better explored. Sounds like the author could have done so much given such a setup.

  4. I’ve read similar stories where I was never sure what was real and what was in the character’s mad minds. Too bad it didn’t live up to the writing.

  5. Ti, your “the short of it” sentence is fantastic! This does sound like a good pick for a book club. We’ve often found that the books that people don’t love often generate the most discussion, too. I suppose because then you have the writing to really hack into. Doesn’t it make you wonder how you could find the book just “okay” and yet it could be Man Book short listed? I always wonder what I missed when that happens!

    1. These Man Booker books always appeal to me…until I read them. They nearly always leave me scratching my head. Sometimes I just don’t think I am deep enough to get them… because it can’t be the author, right? LOL.

  6. Hi Tina,
    I really liked your reviews and your blog, You manage to give the reader your precise impression of the story without giving out much. brilliant! Hope to read you regularly from now. Following you now!

    Like you, I love to chatter about books too. Please visit my new book blog at
    If you like the blog, please follow. I look forward to many discussions with you.
    Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s