In Zodiac Light

Written by Robert Edric
Review by Sarah Bower

This novel is bound to invite comparison with Pat Barker’s Regeneration: set in an asylum for shell-shocked soldiers, its ostensible raison d’etre is to examine war’s impact on an artistic temperament. The action of Edric’s novel revolves around musician and composer Ivor Gurney, as Barker’s deals with the experiences of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart.

But there the resemblance ends. Sassoon and Owen were officers. Their doctor was an enlightened pioneer in the field of mental health. They were patients at Craiglockhart during the First World War, when most people could still see the point in it. In Zodiac Light, by contrast, is set in 1923. The patients in the City of London Mental Hospital at Dartford have become an embarrassment to a society anxious to move on from the traumas of war. Gurney was an enlisted man, a poorly educated country boy whose musical ability was seen by many as an aberration, merely an extension of the mental illness from which he was already suffering before he joined the army. Even his doctor at Dartford, the nameless narrator, only ever expresses an appreciation of his patient’s genius in the most general and ill-formed terms.

Juxtaposed with the account of Gurney’s treatment at Dartford are the narrator’s recollections of his childhood and his father’s obsession with bee-keeping. The purposeful and orderly society of the bees is contrasted with the ignorant, self-serving management of the asylum. This is done without comment by the narrator who, both as a child and adult, is a passive watcher, perceptive yet incapable of employing his perceptiveness in the best interests of his patients or his lonely mother.

This could make the novel a frustrating read, but it is redeemed by the quality of Edric’s prose. His language is precise and compressed, each word invested with a world of meaning. An uneasy, thought-provoking work which stays with you long after you have finished reading it.