In the mid-19th century a middle-aged poet was consigned to a progressive mental institute just outside London. The man, known as The Peasant Poet, believed he had two wives and alternated his delusions of having other identities (like Byron and Shakespeare) with moments of piercing, brutal clarity. John Clare suffered greatly in an era when mental health treatment had progressed little beyond the releasing of "humors," even in Matthew Allen's relatively progressive institue.
This institute, nestled in a forest shimmering with Midsummer Night's Dream dew, is home to a number of other tortured souls, a count soon increased by the arrival of Alfred Tennyson, who stays on the property to support his depresssed brother. Clare, Tennyson, Dr. Allen, his daughters, and the other inmates struggle to reconcile their inner worlds with the harsh reality of a changing, modern life, one that lies both beyond and within their enchanted forest.
The Quickening Maze does not have a plot, so to speak, but draws its strength from the trials of its fascinating characters and the questions about life that they raise. It is a book in which very little is explicit, even the settings and the characters, but it manages to be quite haunting. This would be an excellent choice for a book club -- it raises questions about poetry, love, mental health, modernity, craftmanship, and, most poignantly, the constant tragedy that comes from human yearning. I wouldn't say I loved it, as the writing was too impressionistic for the book to seize onto me, but it was definitely interesting. Has anyone else read it?