IN ZODIAC LIGHT tells the story of Ivor Gurney, while he was a patient at the City of London Mental Hospital in Dartford. That's not the only story it tells, however. Robert Edric plaits the narrative about an English composer who's not nearly well-enough known with that of the narrator of the novel: the doctor in charge of his care at the asylum. Many of the characters are taken from real life and Edric has not as far as I know played fast and loose with the historical record. Gurney was abandoned by his family and his friends and admirers in London didn't quite realize what effect his service in France had had on him in every way. For anyone who doesn't know Gurney's music, here is his song 'Sleep.'
Ballad Of The Three Spectres As I went up by Ovillers
In mud and water cold to the knee,
There went three jeering, fleeing spectres,
That walked abreast and talked of me.
The first said, 'Here's a right brave soldier
That walks the dark unfearingly;
Soon he'll come back on a fine stretcher,
And laughing for a nice Blighty.'
The second, 'Read his face, old comrade,
No kind of lucky chance I see;
One day he'll freeze in mud to the marrow,
Then look his last on Picardie.'
Though bitter the word of these first twain
Curses the third spat venomously;
'He'll stay untouched till the war's last dawning
Then live one hour of agony.'
Liars the first two were. Behold me
At sloping arms by one - two - three;
Waiting the time I shall discover
Whether the third spake verity.
The book begins with a trip by some of the inmates to see the body of a beached whale and it's easy to make the link between this creature and Ivor himself. We meet some of the characters who are going to be important in the story, especially Cox the orderly who turns out to be a very nasty piece of work
The narrative moves from the present to the narrator's childhood and youth and this means that the story has some air let into it, which has the effect of lightening the claustrophobia of the asylum and also providing the contrast of glimpses of ordinary life in a story which would otherwise be depressing.
Edric tells in a very understated and unhysterical way a story of great sadness and suffering. Not all the doctors are as benign as our narrator. His background as the son of a very careful and diligent and scholarly apiarist is important. There are beehives in the grounds of the asylum which have gone to rack and ruin and the way these are restored is a parallel with the way the hospital works to restore its patients' minds, with greater or lesser success. The nurse, Alison, is the main force driving the beehive rescue and she is the representative of all that is good and kind and loving. She stands for caring women everywhere, whose job is to help repair matters after a war, and look after those who have lost their minds in the fighting of it.
The bees provide a respite and another focus of interest in a novel which follows a slow and yet fascinating path to its climax. This is a concert, given in the hospital, by Ivor Gurney and others. Tragedy strikes even as the music is played. It's a terrific climax to a very fascinating and unusual book which didn't make a great stir when it appeared. Robert Edric is not well enough known and I hope I've persuaded some people to try his novels. I loved this one, which in its quiet way says a great deal about war and nature and all the things that are worth preserving.
NB: I didn't have time to hunt down a photo of Ivor Gurney which I was sure was free to use. Just put his name into Google images and you will find a great many photographs to look at.