I often turn to John Clare’s poetry when I am restless and need grounding. I love his close observation and evocative descriptions of a bumbarrel’s nest in a “close sheltered hedge”, of evening crows and starnels that “darken down the sky”, and snow that turns hedges to “one white sweep of curving hills”. So I eagerly sought out this fictional-but-based-on-true-events account of his stay at High Beach, a mental institution run by Matthew Allen, and Clare’s descent into madness.
The novel, which was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, may start and end with Clare, but his experiences constitute only a fraction of the book. Instead, we jump from character to character: Matthew Allen, his wife, his two daughters, his son, various inmates and employees, a visiting Alfred Tennyson. There is some lovely writing, especially in sections capturing the thoughts and perceptions of the mad, such as this passage:
The wind separated into thumps, into wing beats. An angel. An angel there in front of her. Tears fell like petals from her face. It stopped in front of her. Settling, its wings made a chittering sound. It paced back and forth, a strange, soft, curving walk that was almost like dancing It reached out with its beautiful hands to steady itself in the mortal world, touching leaves, touching branches, and left stains of brightness where it touched. Slowly, unbearably, it turned its face to look at her.
Foulds’s great achievement is to imagine each person’s view of the world—no matter how cockeyed—so thoroughly and to describe it with such precise detail that the reader cannot help sharing it, however briefly. And therein lies the problem. The point of view skips from one character to another, often within the same scene where it may stay for only a paragraph or two. In one scene, we flit from one head to another seven times in four pages. Perhaps this disorienting mish-mash is meant to replicate the experience of the inmates, but none seems confused in this way. Each is fixated on a particular idea, though Clare does take on different identities—in one scene thinking himself a boxer named Jack Randall—but he stays with that identity rather than bouncing from one to another.
In Andrew Motion’s review in The Guardian, he says that Foulds “frames questions about the nature of selfhood” in this book. True, each character is fiercely individual and as isolated as the planets each spinning in its own orbit in Allen’s orrery. Yet by not staying with any one character, the author gives us only fragments of their perception of themselves and their place in the world, not enough to understand it in depth and no time to see it grow or change. Each character is given a code, a particular obsession which becomes shorthand for that character. However, a character must be more than a one-dimensional cipher to hold the reader’s interest.
I cannot tell who the main character is. Seven or eight share equal real estate, from the doctor’s teenaged daughter Hannah to Alfred Tennyson, who is staying nearby while his melancholic brother is being treated while struggling with his own grief over the death of Arthur Hallam, to Matthew Allen with his Victorian optimism to Clare himself. Phantom antagonists are set up—one of the workers abuses the inmates; the doctor won’t allow Clare out to visit the gypsies—but these are not the conflicts driving the book. The only conflicts are against the real-world restrictions on the unreasonable desires of the characters, inmates or not.
I love poetry. I love literary fiction. I love much experimental fiction. However, if an author wants to dispense with the basics of the novel (a main character, an antagonist, conflict, plot, character growth, resolution), for me, there must be something more than lovely images and deeply imagined moments to compensate.