Noonday by Pat Barker, book review: An unvarnished view of the Blitz

The last part of Pat Barker’s ‘truthful’ trilogy takes her to the Second World War for the first time
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The Independent Culture

Pat Barker has very much made the masculine experience of war her subject. Under war's implacable demands, through its turmoil and horror, her heroes reveal their mettle. Her award-winning Regeneration trilogy examined the impact of battle on men in the trenches in the 1914-1918 conflict, their shattered nervous systems no less than their bodies, and the work of the psychiatrists patching them up and sending them back to the Front.

Barker has returned to the same subject with a new trilogy, this time giving a woman character a central role. In volume one, Life Class, she introduced the complicated friendships between a trio of Slade students, Elinor, Kit and Paul, soon to be bruised by private conflict and professional jealousy.

In Toby's Room Barker focused on the patching and mending done by lay people, in particular Elinor, involved as an artist in helping surgeons reconstruct the faces of injured soldiers.

This final novel in the series, Noonday, jumps from the battlefields of Picardy to the blacked-out squares and streets of London, as Londoners endure the Blitz in autumn 1940. Again, the searchlight shines on rescue and repair. Elinor and Kit work as volunteer ambulance drivers, and Paul, now married to Elinor, as an air-raid warden. The fate of Kenny, a homesick evacuee child billeted on Elinor's family, who escapes back to the East End, helps drive the plot and weave its strands together.

In modern novels concerning 20th-century wars, it's not surprising that the ghosts of earlier books by long-dead novelists and memoirists should float through ruined landscapes. If Life Class and Toby's Room were benevolently haunted by Vera Brittain and Virginia Woolf, the ghosts of Elizabeth Bowen, Rose Macaulay and Graham Greene walk the bombsites of Noonday. Macaulay described a ripped-open London turned into "wilderness", Elizabeth Bowen described the terror and amorality of survivors, Graham Greene invoked the paranormal.

In Noonday, the spirit world forms part of daily reality, witnessed in particular by one Bertha Mason (shades of Charlotte Bronte's "madwoman" in Jane Eyre). Bertha is a medium, not averse to bolstering her gift of second sight with a bit of trickery when necessary. Barker draws her close up, with humour and compassion. Bertha's narrative jumps colourfully alive, fizzes with energy. Her vernacular has not been educated out of her: "Fishmonger now just give her a funny look – you'd think it was in his own best interest to be civil, wouldn't you, but oh, no. Just stood there in his straw hat and his white coat, fag end stuck to his bottom lip, bloody great turd of ash ready to drop."

When Bertha, sitting on a park bench next to the chance-met Paul, has a vision of the lost Kenny, she strives to communicate it to him. She is a kind of artist, with her own integrity. She "sees" into the darkness. Paul can only do that in nightmares, when his daytime repression lifts and his mind invents surreal scenarios.

Bertha's language, ducking and diving in the imagery of her childhood and her unconscious, is far livelier than Paul's. He has learned detachment, we suppose. He roots his perceptions in measured thought rather than immediate sensation: "Central London was reassuring. The streets, though quiet, seemed almost normal, or what passed for normal… taxis careered past, as if they owned the entire city – as indeed they did. Petrol rationed for private cars, buses scarce."

Barker's use of free indirect narrative means that the novel's point of view can swivel like a torchbeam to illuminate London's devastated streets, the rescuers digging out bodies from the night's rubble. When Paul helps shepherd a group of bombed-out families, including Kenny's, towards shelter, his perspective maintains a controlled, effective distance: "they walked along rubble-strewn roads, through puddles of water filmed with oil, over fire hoses that lay across the black and glistening pavements as grey and flaccid as drowned worms. On their right, buildings blazed out of control; others, black and skeletal, wavered in the heat… the road behind them suddenly ignited in a long, slow, leisurely lick of flame."

Sometimes Paul's point of view, describing the "now" of escorting Kenny towards his bombed home, switches mid-paragraph into authorial omniscience and then back again: "oily black smoke drifted across the wet roads. Many of the warehouses were still on fire, dwarfing the exhausted fire crews who still, hour after hour, directed white poles into the heart of the blaze…he couldn't understand how Kenny was finding his way." The vivid rendering of these scenes of carnage and destruction contrasts with the flatness of tone employed elsewhere: "They were shown to a quiet table in the corner of the restaurant. Menus were produced, a bottle of wine ordered. It was all really rather pleasant, except Paul's appetite seemed to have deserted him." Perhaps this plainness of language is meant to show Paul's exhaustion. Or perhaps it's to do with pace, Barker moving the story briskly along.

A novel about artists alerts the reader to expect a certain intensity of seeing but much of the time, once away from the backdrop of fire and bombing, Kit, Paul and Elinor seem pedestrian narrators: "The lift took ages to arrive… his spirits sank… painfully thin… sat in solitary splendour… Sister Matthews had come down on her like a ton of bricks." Elsewhere, occasional anachronisms – "drizzled with cream", "toilet", "move on" – disrupt the period illusion that went before.

The novel does not attempt to describe the painting process, the protagonists' paintings, painters' obsessions with their materials. Elinor, looking at the portrait of her dead brother Toby that hangs in the hallway of her mother's house, simply gives an opinion that could be Barker's, looking over her shoulder: "It… was frankly not very good… it was a complete travesty."

Art, the novel suggests, put aside by most artists until after the war, will then retrospectively be reinstated, given value. Elinor, invited to become an official war artist, will bravely try to paint the truth rather than heroic or sentimental fantasies. Barker does that too.

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