Hey, it’s a new Pat Barker! Well, actually, this is the third part of a loose(-ish) trilogy that began with Life Class and continued with Toby’s Room, so if you want to be thorough about your reading, you’d want to rewind and check those two out in the first instance. On the other hand, if you’re feeling pressed for time, Noonday has enough self-contained backstory that it ought to work okay on its own, and besides, if you want to get sneaky, you can always go ahead and check out our crib-sheet – aka, our review of Toby’s Room.
So: aside from wrapping up the respective stories of Elinor, Kit and Paul (more on this in a moment) this is also Barker’s first novel set in the Second World War – a nice shift for everyone’s favourite WWI historical novelist, right? Noonday focuses on the Blitz – the bombardment of London in the autumn of 1940, for those of you not in the know – and its characters are all fire wardens and ambulance drivers (and, more peripherally, an evacuee). And while, as you’d expect from Barker, the war is far from an incidental backdrop but in fact a driving force in the shaping of her characters’ lives and stories, her rendering of the destruction, the fear, and the weary determination of the Londoners, as well of the brute physical destruction and remaking of the city’s landscape is unflinching and relentless, and exemplifies Barker’s typical attention to historical detail.
The story picks up Elinor’s narrative just before the real bombs start to hit: she’s an ambulance driver staying temporarily with her family in the country as her mother dies and obsessing (again) over her brother Toby’s death in the first War. Meanwhile Paul, her husband, an air-raid warden, delivers a reluctant evacuee back to his family – pretty ill-advisedly – and Kit, her one-time suitor, is also driving an emergency vehicle and continuing to pine after her. Will Kit finally hook up with Elinor? No spoilers here, but the E-P-K triangle is central to this book, as it was to the others, and, like the others, we get multiple third-person narrators, meaning we get access to a whole bunch of perspectives on the war – including, rather randomly, that of Bertha, a psychic who freaks Paul out no end, and whose sections were probably our favourites, because, odd and rambling as they were, they were also hallucinatory (in a good way) and bloody and kind of chilling, and they reminded us of the narrators in Union Street – women messed about and mocked and mistreated, and utterly convincing and compelling all the while. (And do read Union Street: for our money, it’s still the best of Barker’s novels.)
So is it good? Well, it’s unflagging with regards to the war – if you’ve read the other two, or the Regeneration novels, you’ll know Barker doesn’t shy from gore or provide convenient happy endings – and it’s also a convincing wrap-up (of sorts) to the storylines set up in the other two books. We’d expected it to focus on Kit more than it does, and that was something of a shame, but what we get of Elinor and Paul is still interesting. Barker’s prose is simple, but dotted with metaphors (‘though the nightmares had gone, their fetid darkness stained the day’) and descriptions (‘an eye like a dying sun sank beneath the rim of a shattered cheekbone, the lips were pulled back to reveal teeth like the stumps of dead trees’) that linger. The characters’ vocations as artists lend a lot to the narrative in this sense; the rendering of horror through painting and the role of aesthetics in a war zone pop up again and again (the government’s whitewashing of wartime in official commissions is particularly skewered via Kit’s bitterness and Elinor’s orders). It’s reminiscent of Elizabeth Bowen and Graham Greene (the war, the love affairs) and it’s certainly compelling in its own right: what will happen to Kit? What has happened to Kenny (the evacuee)? If anything, it suffers from Paul’s relative weakness as a character – his everyman status isn’t as interesting as Elinor’s (marginalised as a war artist because of her gender; condemned by her own dying mother for her relationship with her dead brother) or Kit’s (the maimed survivor) or, indeed, Bertha’s (Barker does a damn good ghost-whisperer). The book as a whole, though, kept us hooked, and as the final part of a trilogy it was, as we predicted, stronger than the middle, even though it took us in an unexpected direction.
Any Cop?: If you like your war fiction on the literary side, it’s detailed and gory enough to please you, and if you like Barker, it’s great to see her tackle a new war. It’s probably not going to make our Top Ten of the year, but it’s one we’re very pleased to have spent a few days with.