In Zodiac Light, by Robert Edric


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So, you are an author and you are going to write a novel about an insane asylum in England following The Great War, featuring a central character who is both a published poet and, maybe, a brilliant musical composer. If you are thinking that Pat Barker’s Regeneration is looming on the horizon as a comparison, you are with me. And, while it was published a year after this novel, Adam Fould’s The Quickening Maze is also waiting in the lists. I wish you good luck as we embark on the reading experience.

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.

17 Responses to “In Zodiac Light, by Robert Edric”

  1. kimbofo Says:

    Even before I read your review, Kevin, I have to say that this title isn’t one that I would normally rush out and read. Indeed, I selected it for your competition on that basis! But even though you didn’t like it, I have to say I’m intrigued… library readers, as you point out, obviously liked it, otherwise it wouldn’t have been nominated, but I wonder what they saw in it that you didn’t?

    I’ve not read Adam Foulds, nor Barker’s Trilogy (although I bought it for my dad at Christmas, he’s a bit of a Great War buff), but perhaps I should go for them first?


  2. Tom Cunliffe Says:

    This sounds really good and just up my street. I enjoyed The Quckening Maze and also Sarah Walters which also has a lengthy passage about an insane asylum. I’m so impressed by your review that I’ve ordered the book from the library


  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    kimbofo: I suspect some readers would be attracted by precisely what made the novel a disappointment for me — it’s predictability. The characters are realistic and the theme has some appeal, even if it has been done better by others. And there are some side trips which I did not include in the novel (one into bee-keeping, which also featured in Settlement — I can’t help but wonder if there is a judge who thinks we should pay more attention to bee-keeping).

    I am biased about Barker’s Trilogy which I think is the best fictional writing about war that I have read. I would certainly recommend it over this novel, although she does move off from the “creative” person angle somewhat after the first volume.


  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: I am heartened by your comment. Even with books that I don’t like very much, I would like to think that I say enough about them that people can throw my judgment into the rubbish bin and arrive at their own conclusion. Which seems to be the case with you and this novel — I do hope you enjoy it.


  5. Marieke Says:

    Agreed about Regeneration. I’ll get around to the next two in the trilogy by and by. Have you read all three?


  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Marieke: I have read all three (twice, actually). The second and third volumes expand the story considerably, which is why I think it is a successful trilogy. I liked Regeneration “best” but that is probably because I liked the subject matter the best — all three books are very good.


  7. Mary Gilbert Says:

    Oh dear. I’ve read some other reviews of this novel that have been less than complementary ( and I’ve made a bid for it to win….). In Edric’s defense I will say that his novel `Peacetime’ is superb as are other earlier works. I hope the disappointing reception of this novel – and it doesn’t sound good – won’t put people off from exploring his other works.


  8. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Who would have thought artists damaged by the trenches and now in asylums could become a burgeoning new genre?

    Anyway, I certainly won’t judge his other works by this one but this one doesn’t sound a success. I’ll wait to see what Tom thinks of it, in case his view radically differs (which would be interesting) but for the meantime it’s an obvious pass.

    Sometimes an ok or mediocre book can still appeal because of the subject matter. Land of Marvels springs to mind, which still tempts me. But having no particular interest in World War One, psychiatry or stories of mental recuperation in the absence of something vital in the prose I don’t see it hitting my TBR pile any time soon.


  9. David Dean Says:

    I read this one about a year ago and it passed the time well enough though I’ve already forgotten much of it. I’ve read five of Edric’s novels now and I do find that the main characters all tend to be variations on the same person, the other characters are (as you point out) predictable, and the dialogue is often curiously unnatural – conversations in Edric’s books tend to be two people in a room analysing what each other is saying, which he carries to extremes in his most recent novel “Salvage” wherein the protagonist Quinn says “Meaning?” (or similar) after almost anything anyone says to him, and often goes on to tell the other person what he thinks they really mean. Does anybody really do that?

    I’d agree with Mary who points to “Peacetime” as being his best work and there is certainly much to enjoy in Edric, not least the fact that his novels are very quick reads due to his unshowy yet well-crafted style. Mainly what keeps me reading them is the ongoing theme that runs through his books – he never deals with the Big Event directly (often war, though he seems to have an interest too in civil engineering projects!) but explores around the edges of it, the build up and the aftermath, the effects it leaves, which is an interesting perspective.


  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mary: Well, I did leave open the option of changing your choice. 🙂 And I will admit (yet again) that last year I abandoned the book that eventually won, so perhaps my disappointment is actually a reflection that this book has an excellent chance. Thanks for the opinion on Peacetime — I will keep it in mind as a future read. The problems that I had with this book were not with the author’s style but rather the eventual execution, so I would be willing to consider further exploration of his work.l

    Max: If you haven’t read Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, you should have her on your long-term list. In some ways, I do see it as a much darker version of parts of Dance to the Music of Time, although her war is The Great War. Unlike most trilogies, the three books are quite different, although they do feature many of the same characters. It (they) is an exceptional piece of work.


  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    David: Thank you very much for that overview on Edric’s novels — this is the only one that I have read, so I am no expert. Having said that, my experience with the book leaves me agreeing completely with your opinion. There was nothing particularly the matter with the book — my disappointment was that the author with very little effort could have stretched his premise so much further. Which he obviously did not want to do. Indeed, I would be on the positive side of neutral regarding reading another of his books and your and Mary’s opinion will put Peacetime on my reader.

    Given what you have said and my own experience with this book, it seems to me that Edric fits the KfC category of “plane-train” author — competently written books that are ideally suited for environments where outside distractions make challenging books less than ideal.


  12. Kerry Says:

    Put me on the list of those who were not enticed by either the cover or the title. You have inoculated me against it unless I hear something dramatically different or, perhaps, if it wins. I keep thinking that I should read all the IMPAC winners, but have not “officially” started the project though, by chance, I have read a number of them.

    I will, however, try to read something in this emerging micro-genre. Does One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest count? The Baker trilogy sounds excellent too, so maybe that first if Cuckoo’s Nest doesn’t count.

    By the way, a book related to this exciting micro-genre is The Halfway House by Guillermo Rosales. While the setting is a halfway house for the mentally unstable rather than an asylum, I think if you like insane asylums, you will likely like this one. Trevor introduced me to it via this superb review.


  13. Kerry Says:

    Ooh, but I think I recall Kevin didn’t like that one. Maybe that isn’t the place to start. But it is a book to consider.


  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: I hadn’t thought about Cuckoo’s Nest — you are right that it may well be an American version in the mini-genre. One thing that the UK books have that it does not is the “class” nature of the Great War, with hopeless officers drawn from the privileged classes sending lower-class grunts to their deaths (with a fair number of traumatized cases among the survivors, whatever their class).

    I didn’t like The Halfway House that much but it has got better in memory. I wouldn’t compare it to this book (or Barker’s trilogy) but it does seem a valid comparison with Cuckoo’s Nest.


  15. Brian Says:

    After reading this review, I’m looking forward to reading this. I will reply back when I am all finished.


  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Brian: I see from your link that your are a beekeeper — and beekeeping is also a story line in Settlement. I would be interested in your thoughts on that one as well.


    • Brian Says:

      Yeah that was kind of lured me to this book, I’m hoping to get started reading very soon, just need to finish the current book I’m working on 🙂


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