This overview of the work of Adam Foulds is the second in my survey of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists 2013
How intriguing is Adam Foulds! Few writers today would choose to focus on an epic prose poem between two highly-acclaimed novels. Yet Foulds has done just that. He surprises. One minute he’s penning a funny, warm and fuzzy – and somewhat conventional – novel about two misfits. Then he’s charging into the dark story of Britain’s rule in Africa in the 1950s, before delivering a haunting, elegiac novel about the madness of the poet John Clare. Readers would be forgiven for asking “what’s next?”
What’s next is In the Wolf’s Mouth, due to be published next year. The new book takes place after the Second World War, particularly in Sicily and explores trauma and violence and the corruption that frequently follows armed conflict during the reconstruction of a country. You can parallel, says Foulds, similar attempts to do the same in Iraq and Afghanistan. Maybe this is the missing link in understanding his work: a desire to explore a time and a society through a series of highly-charged events, in which the prism of poetry intersects with traditional narrative.
Foulds came to prominence in his mid-thirties. After Oxford and completing the now famed Creative Writing course at the University of East Anglia, he wrote quietly and consistently before The Truth About These Strange Times was published in 2007. In a Granta interview, he discussed the difficulty he faced before the accolades poured in. Many of his contemporaries were “successful” in traditional terms, lawyers, accountants, rising up corporate ladders. Foulds took menial, blue-collar jobs with little responsibility to allow himself the time and freedom to write and braved criticism from friends and family. Recognition was both welcome and unexpected.
The Truth About These Strange Times pairs two unlikely characters: Saul, a brilliant ten-year old who is unwillingly preparing for the World Memory Championships under the watchful eye of his over-protective and over-zealous parents; and Howard, an obese, unemployed Scottish labourer with whom Saul discovers the meaning of friendship, fun and lost childhood. It is an endearing book. Saul and Howard are especially well-drawn and Foulds has an eye for detail, relishing descriptions such as the tedium of repetitive tasks on the factory floor, the tang of salt and vinegar potato crisps and the comfort of stodgy food. Less successful are the minor characters, particularly Saul’s parents, who are of the cardboard cut-out variety, pushy, controlling Yuppies with very little depth. A sub-plot involving Howard tricked into marrying a Russian woman who needs a Visa to settle in Britain, also feel awkwardly tacked onto the main plotline. Yet the enduring feel of this debut novel is one of charm and undoubted promise.
More ambitious by far is The Quickening Maze which was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2009. Foulds’ novel has at its core a set of serendipitous circumstances. He discovered that the lyric poet John Clare was a patient at the High Beach Asylum in Essex from 1837-1841 and that at the same time the poet Alfred Tennyson regularly visited his brother Septimus, who was a patient there. The institution – very liberal for its time, allowing patients the freedom to wander through the ground and occasional furloughs into the neighbouring town – was run by an unscrupulous con-man, the Reverend Matthew Allen, MD. Allen tricked Tennyson into investing heavily in a hair-brained scheme for mass-producing furniture. When the scheme collapsed. Tennyson was unable to recoup his investment, leading to significant financial distress.
The heady mix of poetry, commerce, idealism and crass venality lies at the heart of this novel. Foulds blends extraordinarily vivid descriptions of madness and hallucination with an intense poetic scrutiny that imaginatively reconstructs a slice of history. Again, his grasp of the sensual – the tastes, smells, filth of Victorian England – is visceral in its immediacy. And there’s delicacy and trembling beauty, too, as the reader sees the countryside through John Clare’s eyes:
“The forest was darkening. Winter was not far off. The black fallen leaves, plastered down by heavy rain, were silvered here and there with frost. The tree trunks were wet. They passed the hooked, blustery shines of a holly. Good snail weather. Their reins creaked. The bits clicked in the horses’ mouths as they breathed large clouds.” Succinct, satisfying, highly visual, this is Foulds in full command of his material.
Equally impressive is Foulds’ epic poem, The Broken Word, subtitled ‘An Epic Poem of The British Empire in Kenya, and the Mau Mau Uprising Against It’. This won the 2008 Costa Book Award and the Somerset Maugham Award. Dazzling and an imaginative tour de force, The Broken Word feels as if Foulds were documenting the breakdown of a civilization with a hand-held camera.
Set in the last days of British Colonial rule in Africa in the 1950s, the poem is essentially a meditation on the loss of innocence. Young Tom comes out to Africa to spend time on the family farm in Kenya before going to University. He becomes embroiled in the violence of the Kikuyu uprisings, as they struggle for independence against British colonial powers. The Kikuyu have slaughtered several Brits on neighbouring homesteads so a Home Guard is created to fight back. At his father’s insistence, Tom joins them – it’s time. I’m afraid, you know, to be a man and all that.’ British clipped upper-class speech patterns and casual attitudes to thuggery are faultlessly rendered, as is Tom’s growing descent into brutality. His, like Africa, is a “Broken World”, where killing becomes almost second nature and the ideals of public school lost forever amongst rape, torture and senseless killing.
‘In his rage, he forgot his training
and beat him
not with the butt but the barrel of his gun.
He swung and swung
across the breaking stave
of the man’s forearms and collar bone
until it seemed the prisoner shivered
and gradually fell asleep,
but Tom, Tom had too much energy and carried on.’
Returning to Oxford, Tom is clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Africa has irreparably damaged him. He has seen too much violence, is troubled by recurring fantasies of beating his tutor to death and even roughandles his girl, Eleanor. The poem ends in uncertainty. Tom may, or may not be able to face the realities of marriage and the mundane. The heat of the landscape, the heat of the moment, the heat of blood, the insistent burning in the brain – Foulds captures all this without partisanship or sentimentality and with admirable restraint.
The Broken Word also feels as if poetry is where Foulds appears to be truly at home. With his richness of language and the emotional power his words invoke, he expertly combines the lyrical with the epic. In the Wolf’s Mouth is definitely a book to watch out for.