Prisoners of waterlandPeacetime by Robert Edric 357 pp, Doubleday Robert Edric (a pseudonym of Gary Edric Armitage) has not received the recognition he deserves. His novels are written in a glacial, dispassionate prose that eschews histrionics. They cover a range of historical subjects, from infanticide in the Belgian Congo to doomed Arctic exploration, and have an enchanted clarity all their own. Peacetime, Edric’s 12 th novel, is a sombre parable of conscience, in which the characters are skewered on grave moral dilemmas.
The date is 1946, the aftermath of the global conflict. James Mercer, a former captain in the Engineers, is demolishing obsolete gun emplacements on the Fenland coast. An outsider to the tight-knit Fen community, he is rapidly caught up in local hostilities when he befriends Jacob Haas, a Dutch-Jewish survivor of Belsen, and Mathias Weisz, a German soldier captured at Normandy. Strangers on an alien shore, Haas and Weisz are among the handful of foreign labourers and PoWs working on the demolition project. Mercer is instinctively drawn to these men, and listens sympathetically to their tales of loss and exile. Association with them is dangerous, however, as Mercer is fraternizing with “Jerries and Jew-boys.” The locals conspire to thwart his precious new alliances.
So the war continues, with equal violence, into peacetime. Edric is not afraid to investigate old-fashioned notions of friendship, justice and forgiveness. With the defilement of Belsen within him, Jacob Haas is full of self-doubting despondency over the fate of his adored sister Anna, who probably did not survive the camps. According to the official records, she is presumed dead or, in the Red Cross euphemism, “dispersed.” Mercer watches uncomprehendingly as the “weak, slow-moving” Haas labours among the PoWs on the marsh and exposed mudflats of the Fens.
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Away from Mercer’s supervision, Haas lives in a cold and comfortless room above a scrapyard, making useless glassware in a kiln. Rapidly, Peacetime darkens into a drama of extremity and isolation, as the Fen community attempts to destroy the foreigners. Old animosities flare when ex-private Lynch is released from Colchester Military Prison, where he was interned, supposedly for desertion, and is reunited with his wife and daughter on the Fens. Edric, a master of the slow revelation, eventually discloses that Lynch was not imprisoned for going absent after all, but for almost killing a man. A twisted individual, he pits the locals against Mercer and his foreign friends Haas and Weisz – with bloody results. A new social order based on narrow jealousies and tribal enclaves evolves among the Fenland ers.
Peacetime reminded me powerfully of JG Ballard. Like Ballard, Edric is interested in relations between trapped humans, and he presents a melancholy world of loss and surrender. His images of abandoned airfields and derelict outbuildings have their counterpart in Ballard’s trademark images of disused runways and deserted blockhouses. Another strong influence, I think, is Belfast-born novelist Brian Moore. Moore confronts big themes with a sombre eye, and so does Edric, as he investigates the discomforting truths beneath polite human society. In the vicious, self-serving Lynch, he has created a compelling creature: Lynch physically abuses his daughter Mary, and tries to hide his weakness from the world and himself.
As Lynch sets out to entrap Haas, smashing up his bedsit and cursing foreigners, we are left with an enduring image of prejudice. In the novel’s startling denouement, the terrified Haas imagines that Lynch’s daughter is in fact the recently deceased Anna, the sister he lost to the Nazis. Riven by pain and foreboding, Mercer finds himself marooned in the unpleasant Fen community. “It would be dark in an hour, more than enough darkness for them all,” Edric comments bleakly. If the narrative is a little static, Peacetime remains a marvel of psychological insight and subtly observed relations. Its spare, unadorned prose has poetic resonance, and Edric beautifully captures the salt air, the dunes and water-channels of the Fens.
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And he skilfully establishes the reader’s empathy with his characters, bringing us into their fallible, deeply ambivalent lives. Why Edric has not yet been shortlisted for the Booker Prize is a mystery… Ian Thomson is the author of Primo Levi (Hutchinson).