Sunday, August 15, 2010

One silent novel

So what makes a novel "silent"? Is it the lack of a plot? Is it the boredom that pervade among the characters in the novel? Is it the total ennui that you feel when you read it, which would make you rush to the nearest bookstore and buy the current best-selling thriller? Or is it perhaps the restrained but beautiful writing that permeates throughout its pages?

Adam Foulds's Booker prize shortlisted novel, The Quickening Maze, is indeed a silent novel, but boring it is not. Foulds is primarily a poet, and this is his first attempt at a novel. Naturally, his poetic inclinations are evident in The Quickening Maze. The result is a beautiful and wonderful work of fiction, one that will make you reread some of the passages for their lyrical narrative. Just read the paragraph below and you'll get to see how poetic this novel truly is.
Eventually the singing stopped and a little while after that he felt a blanket placed over him. He opened his eyes to see the rosy fire still breathing at the heart of white sticks. An owl cried its dry, hoarse cry and the bats still scattered their tiny beads of sound around him. He loved lying in its lap, the continuing forest, the way the roots ate the rot of leaves, and it circled on. To please himself, to decorate his path into sleep, he passed through his mind an inventory of its creatures. He saw the trees, beech, oak, hornbeam, lime, holly, hazel, and the berries, the different mushrooms, ferns, moss, lichens. He saw the rapid, low foxes, the tremulous deer, lone wild cats, tough, trundling badgers, the different mice, the bats, the day animals and night animals. He saw the snails, the frogs, the moths, that looked like bark and the large, ghost-winged moths, the butterflies: orange tips, whites, fritillaries, the ragged-winged commas. He recounted the bees, the wasps. He thought of all the birds, the drumming woodpeckers and laughing green woodpeckers, the stripe of the nuthatch, the hook-faced sparrowhawks, the blackbirds and the tree creeper flinching up the trunks of trees. He saw the blue tits flicking between branches, the white flash of the jay's rump as it flew away, the pigeons sitting calmly separate, together in a tree. He was the fierce, sweet-voiced robin. He saw the sparrows. [page 51]

If you're wondering why the paragraph above has a seemingly endless inventory of flora and fauna, it's because The Quickening Maze centers on John Clare, the great nature poet who the English sometimes refer to as the "peasant poet." Set in 1837, The Quickening Maze recounts Clare's stay in a mental institution called High Beach. The institution is run by Matthew Allen, together with his family. We get to read how Clare, in his madness, can't seem to tell reality from fiction. One moment he's Lord Byron; the next, he's Robinson Crusoe. We see how this great poet spirals into madness at the book's closing pages.

John Clare, the peasant poet

Foulds's novel is much about Clare as Matthew Allen, his wife, and his children. Allen's wife, Eliza, is unhappy and dreams of better things for herself. Eliza, one of his younger children, becomes enamored with another poet, Alfred Tennyson, whose brother has just been confined to High Beach. Apparently, having two poets in the institution is big news for the Allens, even though one has gone mad and the other is just a guest accompanying his brother.

One of the things that struck me as I was reading this novel is how some people look down on the poetry of John Clare. Yes, he did write about woodland creatures. And yes, he did touch on mundane topics such as the changing of the seasons, the earth, and indigenous fauna. But does one's choice of a theme in poetry impact the poet's popularity. Unfortunately, it somehow seems so. The Allens and pretty much everyone in High Beach have a higher regard for Tennyson's poems than Clare's. Maybe Tennyson was indeed a better poet than Clare. After all, he is more popular and his collections have never been out of print. I'm not big on poetry, so I'm not going to pass judgment on this topic.

The novel also challenges the reader's perception. On the sections of the book that are about John Clare, one has to be quick to discern whether what you're reading is in fact truth or all part of the madness that is happening in Clare's mind. Sometimes, Foulds offers no distinction and leaves it on the hands of the reader. This technique, I believe, is brilliant.

Despite the novel's tranquil mood, The Quickening Maze remains an enjoyable novel. It's something that you take your time reading. If you're after a thick plot, then you might as well skip this one. But if you're after beautiful prose, intense characterizations, and a rich setting, I'm sure you'll regard this novel as one of the best you've read.

Read this book if:
  1. You're into poetry.
  2. You've always wondered if you're going mad.
  3. You'll read anything that's Booker shortlisted.


gautami tripathy said...

Thanks for posting about this book. I will check it out for three reasons:

1) I am a poet
2) I have read most of John Clare's works
3) No, I am NOT going mad

Peter S. said...

Hi, gautami! Wow, I haven't met a person yet who read most of John Clare's work!

Rise said...

You've always wondered if you're going mad.

Hmmm. Does the mere fact that I’m considering this mean that I’m as sane as can be? Hee-hee.

Great review, Peter. Do you think Foulds can win? I heard Peter Carey was also nominated.

Peter S. said...

Hi, Rise! Oh, The Quickening Maze was shortlisted last year. It lost to Mantel's Wolf Hall.

I don't think our bookstores carry this year's Booker longlisted novels yet, except for The Slap, which I saw at Fully Booked.

martine said...

I am currently reading this for my book group, it is definitely a book all about the writing, very poetic, and nice, gently drawn characters, and getting inside the head of someone going mad. It has certainly tempted me to seek out some poetry by Clare. Lots of interesting historical stuff too, quite a period piece.
thanks for your review

Rise said...

Last year, eh?

*sheepish grin*

Peter S. said...

@Martine: I can't wait to read your review of this book.

@Rise: Yes. Hehehe. I can't wait to read this year's longlisted novels though.

Craig Hart said...

Good review! I actually hadn't heard of this book. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.