Robert Edric’s In Zodiac Light is set in the City of London Mental Hospital, Deptford in 1922. Most of the patients are “war casualties”, still trying to come to terms with what they experienced, be it front line trauma, chemical war or declining to join the conflict back home. The narrator is Dr. Irvine, a young graduate “brain doctor” and a new arrival to the professional staff at the asylum. One of the patients that he has been assigned is Ivor Gurney, the real life poet and composer whom Edric has adopted as a central character in his novel.
Irvine is new to the asylum routine — he is still feeling his way with the director and has even more problems with Cox, an ex-sergeant who is in charge of the orderlies and believes that strong military discipline and the occasional beating up is what most of these sick characters need. Here is Dr. Irvine’s introduction to the challenge that he faces from Osborne, the acting director of the asylum:
“A strange request,” he [Osborne] said.
He read from one of the sheets for a few seconds.
“From the Royal College of Music. A woman.” He searched the sheet. “Marion Scott. She lists all the initials of her qualifications. None of which means a thing to me.”
“Apparently, we have a genius amongst us. Man called –” he read again. “Gurney, Ivor.” He pronounced both names as though he did not believe either of them. “Gurney. Gloucester man. Delivered to us some time ago from Barnwood House. Apparently — according to Miss Scott, that is — he’s something of a poet and a musician. He writes music. She doesn’t say anything about him playing the ukulele.” He laughed at the remark, waiting for me to do the same.
While I do my best to alert visitors here to spoilers, I am afraid that that quote effectively spoils this novel — you now know what it is about, where it is going and whom all but one of the key players are (more on that in the next few paras). I would feel guilty about that, but the quote comes from page 31 of a 368-page book, so I’m thinking it is more of a Distant Early Warning than a spoiler. This is a novel that has an excellent chance of hitting the “most often abandoned” charts.
Miss Scott will be a factor in the book as it progresses. Despite Ivor’s obvious problems, she does believe (perhaps selfishly, because it serves her interests — as does Ivor’s incarceration) that he is a genius and his work should be performed. An asylum recital would be entirely okay, even if it is not in his best interests (surprise, surprise; it is not) if she can bring along the right listeners.
On the other side of this external concern, we have Lyle, an inmate whose “crime” was being a conscientious objector — five years after the war, he too remains institutionalized for no reason. Dr. Irvine has a plan to bring him back to the real world, but Lyle, like Miss Scott, has attached himself to Gurney and considers that his life’s mission.
My biggest problem with this book is that not a single one of the characters, ever once, even for a moment, departs from form. The first few chapters set the book up just fine; the rest is a depressing downward sprial. Irvine is always straightforward. Gurney is never more than half there. Lyle is always selfish. Ms. Scott rivals that selfishness. Cox is always brutal. Osborne is always looking to his future.
Obviously, I didn’t like the book and I will go no further. Edric has found a theme that deserves exploration but other authors have done it far more competently than this book. I believe that Regeneration is one of the greatest novels of our age — I also believe, without any evidence, that Barker discovered in writing that novel that there was a trilogy that flowed from it. And I salute Adam Foulds for following the same theme of an artist trapped in an asylum, with much better results than this volume. I did read In Zodiac Light to the finish — Edric is a competent draughtsman and the language and story run along just fine, the problem is that there is not much to them.
I think the library readers who nominated this book for the IMPAC found a story line that was of legitimate interest. I only wish that I could tell them that other authors have explored it with far more success.