Pat Barker is a war baby, born in 1943, and the English author has spent much of her literary life at war. But her lodestone has been World War I. As a child, she sensed it had changed something elemental within her grandfather and stepfather. In the 1990s, she gave voice and shape to that with the Regeneration trilogy, her Booker Award-winning World War I series.
Her 2007 historical novel Life Class, set in 1914, introduced Elinor, Paul and Kit, young, talented students at London’s prestigious Slade School of Fine Art. Their hormones and artistic ambitions were still raging, along with the war, in Barker’s next novel, Toby’s Room. Kit, Elinor and Paul return in Noonday, the final book of the trilogy, as does the tension between creation and destruction. What has changed is the war. Their braided-together lives fray as London is besieged by the blitz.
Like The Heat of the Day, Elizabeth Bowen’s 1948 erotically charged World War II novel, Noonday portrays the emotional impact of war fought on the home turf. Elinor and Kit volunteer as stretcher bearers, Paul as an air raid patrol warden, but Barker juxtaposes their stiff-upper-lip efforts by peeling back to what lies beneath the surface. Elinor’s marriage to Paul falters. Kit, once the enfant terrible of London’s art scene, drinks. The three characters, now in their 40s, are — or were — fiercely competitive artists of note.
But art, along with sex, has become something muted, private and slightly shameful as they plod along “rubble-strewn roads, through puddles of water filmed with oil,” through bleak days and blacked-out nights. Paul, who served in France during the first World War, now feels “fear in the safety of his own home, and that meant nowhere is safe.”
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When Paul and Elinor’s house is bombed, Paul reacts with giddy elation, a sense that he and Elinor now “live outside time,” that the rules and constraints of life no longer apply. The furtive ways he and the other characters snatch shreds of solace — tumbling into a bottle or a stranger’s bed — have their own loopy energy and logic. Such scenes also help lift a novel which has loss at its core — loss of home, love, family, stability, self. However, the characters’ emotions feel buried beneath the wreckage, their life force a casualty of war.
Alas, the same might be said of Noonday. The transition from Toby’s Room to Noonday feels rough, and Barker’s use of multiple points of view further muddles matters. The novel is an ambitious conclusion to the trilogy but is lacking as a stand-alone read.
Barker saves her best writing for two unrelated characters who help drive the plot. Noonday opens with a young orange-haired evacuee known only as Kenny. who has been sent to live in safety at Elinor’s family home in the country. Kenny is silent, sullen, homesick. “Oh, and he ate himself, that was the other thing. He was forever nibbling at his fingernails, tearing at his cuticles, picking scabs off his knees and licking up the blood.”
The story’s other catalyst is Bertha Mason. Grotesquely obese and down on her luck, Bertha is a “spuggie” or medium who communicates with the dead. “First time she clapped eyes on him, she thought: You’re not long for this world, son.”
Barker may be exhibiting battle fatigue, but as ever, her depiction of war is searing and spot-on. She grounds Noonday with historical fact and offers telling physical detail, from the “mean, sneaky smell” of a gas leak to Elinor noticing — and drawing — the weeds pushing up through the ruins of her bombed-out city. There is “no crack so narrow, no fissure so apparently barren, it couldn’t support . . . life.” Glimmering moments like these make fans look forward to what Barker will write next.
Ellen Kanner is a writer in Miami.