Book review: Noonday by Pat Barker sets personal conflicts against global ones, with the brilliance you’d expect
Booker winner returns to the second world war years in the final novel of her latest trilogy
by Pat Barker
Pat Barker’s magnificent “Regeneration” trilogy represents the high-water mark, in recent times, of fictional accounts of the first world war. Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and the Booker prize-winning The Ghost Road made for eerie, heart-stopping evocations of the war’s devastating effects on soldiers and civilians alike. This was British fiction at its best.
So it was startling that, after writing several novels exploring other topics, she returned to those war years in Life Class, a story of three students at London’s Slade School of Fine Art who get caught up in the war effort. Toby’s Room covered some of the same ground while devoting closer attention to their tyrannical mentor, a painter of tortured souls damaged by war. Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville go off to Belgium to drive ambulances. Elinor Brooke is Paul’s sometime lover and the perpetual object of Kit’s desires. Kit returns from abroad with a terribly disfigured face, Paul with bouts of vertigo. Elinor, whose beloved brother Toby, a pilot in the RAF, is presumed dead, tries to avoid even thinking about the war.
Noonday is the final novel this latest trilogy. The time is 1940 during the German Blitz, her characters are now middle-aged, and Elinor and Paul have married. While they have become fairly successful painters, Kit has set aside his brushes for the role of acerbic and feared art critic. A lonely narcissist, he still yearns for Elinor.
The story opens slowly, as Elinor’s family tends to her dying mother in the countryside. By doing so, Barker underscores the passing away of the old Britain while clarifying various relationships. But once the bombing begins and the setting shifts to London, the novel picks up an irresistible momentum.
Barker is very good at depicting a cityscape of devastated and burning buildings, and Britons anguished and stunned, or gamely trying to carry on. The Blitz serves as backdrop for what is Barker’s central drama: Elinor’s determination to be her own person while two men vie for her love. She not only wants to be taken seriously as an artist, but to live with courage and independence. It’s Kit who truly loves her, while Paul takes her for granted.
The past haunts all three of Barker’s characters, just as the present demands of war reveal in stark relief what they are made of.
Tribune News Service