This was one of those books that came out of nowhere. I am by no means a “literary” person – I don’t take the LRB, I only skim the Saturday Review in the Guardian, there’s no real rhyme or reason to why I choose to read a particular book at a particular time. I can’t even remember why this one came across my radar, but I’m very glad it did.
Foulds tells the odd little story of a madhouse in Epping Forest which in the early-mid nineteenth century was home to both doomed John Clare and the brother of Alfred Tennyson. Out of that neat little set-up, Foulds creates a fiercely-imagined world of forest gypsies, religious madness, financial fear and teenage obsession, using compressed, rich language with an earthy naturalness which owes a debt to both Clare and to his establishment counterpart Wordsworth.
It’s not a long book, but it’ll take you a good while to finish, because the intensity of the language is such that you find yourself reading it like a poem (Foulds is, indeed, a poet), lingering over oblique but beautiful sentences, sometimes going back over a whole paragraph or page to dig out little truffles of meaning. It’s a beautiful thing, but not a fragile thing – there’s a sturdy imagination at work here, and although the portrayal of Clare is tragic and sad, it’s Tennyson who’s really stayed with me. A big, clumsy, elephant-headed genius with only fragmentary connections to the real world, it made me want to go back and read more of his work. Ditto for Foulds. Highly recommended.