The Quickening Maze was shortlisted for the Booker prize, and having read the entire longlist this year I have to say I was very surprised to see it there. I can only assume that this book improves on re-reading – it’s poetic words making much more sense second time round.
The book is set the mid 19th century and centres on a mental asylum in Epping Forest. The two poets, John Clare and Alfred Tennyson, have a strong presence in the book and the historical details of their lives are described as accurately as possible.
I was really looking forward to reading it as I used to live very close to Epping Forest, enjoy historical fiction and find madness a great addition to any story! Unfortunately I was a little bit disappointed, as although the writing was beautiful and individual scenes were captivating, the book failed to fully engage me. The plot had no real forward momentum and the interesting episodes in the book didn’t feel entirely linked.
The large number of characters added to my sense of confusion, perhaps they emphasised the madness present in the mental asylum, but there were so many people fighting for my attention that in the end they just washed past me.
The author is a talented poet, but I’m afraid I’m not a big fan of poetry and so I think much of the beauty of this book was lost on me – it was too quiet.
The wind separated into thumps, into wing beats. An angel. An angel sat there in
front of her. Tears fell like petals from her face. It stopped in front of her.
Settling, it’s wings made a chittering sound. It paced back and forth, a
strange, soft, curving walk that was almost like dancing.
The book was well researched and I loved some of the snippets of historical information. The desire to bury everyone in consecrated ground, leading to sneaking a dead baby into the coffin of a rich gentleman was one such revelation for me. I also loved the descriptions of the forest. The trees seemed to play a more important part in the book than the people.
There was a lot to like in The Quickening Maze, but it didn’t really work as a novel first time round – perhaps a second reading would reveal many more of the subtle layers.
Recommended to poetry lovers or anyone who enjoys quiet pieces of historical fiction.