Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
After a lifetime's struggle with alcohol, critical neglect and depression, in 1840 the nature poet John Clare is incarcerated. The asylum, in London's Epping Forest, is run on the reformist principles of occupational therapy. At the same time, the young Alfred Tennyson, moves nearby and became entangled in the life of the asylum. This historically accurate, intensely lyrical novel, describes the asylum's closed world and Nature's paradise outside the walls: Clare's dream of home, of redemption, of escape.
Foulds's erudite, Booker-shortlisted debut follows three men Dr. Matthew Allen, mad peasant poet John Clare, and prodigious pipe-smoking poet Alfred Tennyson as their fates intertwine at the High Beach mental institution outside of 1837 London. Worried over the cost of the wedding for his eldest daughter, Matthew invents a machine to mass-produce filigreed wood furniture. Ignoring the asylum for his business pursuits, Matthew seeks investors, including the Tennyson family, of whom Alfred's brother, Septimus, is a patient at High Beach. John, meanwhile, spirals into a fantasy world fueled by his obsession with a dead childhood sweetheart, Mary. Things become complicated when John deludes himself into thinking a fellow patient is his dead love. All the while, Alfred, who is at the asylum to be near his brother, is fruitlessly pursued by Matthew's adolescent daughter, Hannah. While Alfred, unfortunately, is the least convincing character, John's madness is richly imagined, and Matthew comes off as powerfully sympathetic as he grows ever more desperate to raise funds for his business gamble. There's a manneredness to the storytelling that devotees of 19th-century British literature will appreciate.