Robert who? Edric is one of those immensely skilled novelists who, because little noise is made on his behalf, seems fated to be discovered insultingly late in a productive career when caught in the arbitrary spotlight of Booker nomination or television adaptation. Booksellers take note: this is a writer to put in the hands of people looking for "someone new".
At first glance, Edric's 12th novel seems to fall within the recent batch of British fiction about the Second World War. Its approach to the subject, however, proves characteristically unobvious. The setting is a remote community on the Norfolk coast. Mercer, an army engineer, has been sent with a reluctant bunch of workers from the engineering corps to demolish redundant gun emplacements. Nearby stands a handful of dilapidated cottages. Once home to the families of lighthouse men, now that the manned lighthouses are being replaced by automatic ones they house a grim collection of poverty-struck locals, as hooked on xenophobia and malicious gossip as the chorus in Britten's Peter Grimes.
Caught between fenland and the Wash, between sour locals and resentful soldiers, are a group of foreigners. Most are despised German prisoners of war, retained for the demolition of a coastal airstrip. There is also Jacob, a hapless Dutch Jew. Bereft of family, displaced since his liberation from Auschwitz, he leads an almost feral existence, sleeping in a condemned building, scratching a living as a glassmaker, living off scraps. He finds himself as despised by the English as he was by the Nazis who killed his parents.
Mercer belongs in neither group, awkwardly an officer among men, a liberal among bigots. He knows that the hamlet's dilapidated housing is due for demolition and that the tenants will soon be homeless, which inhibits his clumsy attempts to befriend them. He lives aloof, camping out in a disused observation tower, but finds himself drawn into a tangle of conflicts. He is befriended by Mary, the disaffected teenage daughter of a haunted local woman, also by Jacob and Matthias (the guardian angel Jacob has found among the POWs). All these friendships are twisted into something dangerous by the return of Lynch, Mary's father, a manipulative brute imprisoned for desertion and equally guilty of murder and wife-beating.
This is less a war novel than an effects-of-war novel. "True loss lives only within us," is Matthias' bleak conclusion, "and is made not the least more bearable by being shared with one or a thousand others, or by being imagined by those others." Edric shows a few good deeds in a naughty world but offers little comfort. His narrative runs the danger of becoming too symbolic to be affecting, an effect emphasised by earnest discussions in which the characters' Jewishness, Germanness or Englishness can feel polarised. What saves the novel from becoming too schematic is, partly, its setting. Edric's evocations of fenland, the sounds of a tide mounting through shingle, the desolation peculiar to the redundant architecture of warfare, are masterly. He observes entirely through Mercer, so brings an engineer's exactitude to physical tasks, like cutting a drain or mending a water pump, and a draughtsman's eye to the delineation of physical space.
There is a saving grace in the ambiguity of the characters: the love/hate feelings between daughter and parents, Jacob's merciless rebuttal of liberal sympathy, the disturbing hint of eroticism in Mercer's relationship with Mary. These are real people, not ideological stereotypes. Chiefly, though, Peacetime works because of Edric's refusal to let the mounting tension slacken. The gathering menace is heightened by the mournful emptiness of the landscape described. Edric's characters come to seem as isolated and vulnerable as chess pieces.
Patrick Gale's novel 'Rough Music' is published in paperback by Flamingo
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