In the Acknowledgements the author writes "I have taken a number of liberties, compressing events that occurred over several years into the space of seven seasons and ignoring some significant individuals while inventing others". The narrative is from multiple viewpoints, the language matching the person. When John Clare's the focus, the language blossoms; the book's 2nd paragraph from his PoV is "Walking towards the wood, the heath, beckoning away. Undulations of yellow gorse rasped in the breeze. It stretched off into unknown solitudes". The asylum boss, Dr Matthew Allen (who rates himself as a polymath), gives him a key out of the grounds. He stays out all night with gipsies, playing a fiddle and eating poached deer. Meanwhile Alfred Tennyson comes to stay, along with old, troubled brother Septimus Tennyson. Allen's daughter Hannah is interested in Tennyson, though he smells. Other people have more expressive voices than him. E.g. -
|Margaret stood in the dead of the world and looked down at the stopped fish under their dirty window of ice. In the black forks of the trees hard snow was pock-marked by later rain. Crows, folded tightly into themselves, clasped branches that plunged in the wind. Voices of other patients reached her there, the sound dulled by the covered winter surfaces like the clapping of gloved hands. (p.65)|
When Matthew's brother Oswald arrives unannounced, we become aware of sibling rivalries. Matthew shows off about his connections. Oswald threatens to reveal Matthew's history of debt. There are religious differences too, Oswald being more Puritan -
|Oswald declined a refilling of his wine by covering it with a swift hand. The movement was sharp and attracted attention. He thought that sufficient comment. Matthew suspected that he drank more freely in other company and saw rhetoric in his brother's stiff comportment. (p.73)|
Even the children have poetic thoughts - young Abigail Allen "tasted the snow on her palms: a nothing taste, but full of an unnameable big thing, full of distance, full of the sky" (p.83).
An angel tells Margaret to become Mary, reborn. Her thoughts get worse - "what she could not begin to try and explain to him was that in Heaven to see and to eat are the same thing. Looking is absorption, is union, without destruction. There nothing is broken. Light flows into light endlessly, in harmony, and is perfectly still" (p.117). John Clare thinks he's Nelson, Byron, a boxer. Hannah's friend Annabella is much prettier than her, so Hannah marries the first suitor who asks her. I don't think the plot needs quite so many daughters.
In the end, Matthew invents a mechanism and borrows money to exploit it, but he goes bust. The inmates are released, Clare walking for days. "Tennyson sat by his fire sinking into the grief that will make him famous" (p.216).
- Andrew Motion (Guardian)
- Lionel Shriver (Telegraph) (Adam Foulds won the 2008 Costa Poetry Award, and he is a skilful poet. These talents are well displayed in his prose which, while lyrical, never grows fussy or highfalutin’.)
- James Wood (It has been a while since I have read a book as richly sown with beauty as Adam Foulds’s novel ... It is a remarkable work, remarkable for the precision and vitality of its perceptions and for the successful intricacy of its prose)
- Fatema Ahmed (New Statesman)
- Simon Kövesi (Independent)
- Ron Charles (The success of this story rests entirely on Foulds's voice, which perfectly captures Clare's mind)