NOONDAY, by Pat Barker. Doubleday, 307 pp., $27.95.
Pat Barker’s magnificent Regeneration trilogy represents the high-water mark, in recent times, of fictional accounts of World War I. “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,” published here in 2008. While offering an intriguing spin on the classic love triangle, it’s no surprise that this story of three students at London’s Slade School of Fine Art who get caught up in the war effort couldn’t measure up to its more illustrious successors.
“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” now becomes the final novel in another 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.
She writes that a toilet in a half demolished house looks “somehow vulnerable, touching even, like a fleeting, accidental glimpse of somebody’s backside.” Through Paul’s eyes, she observes that “people clung to each other these days, as if the mere fact of being known, recognized . . . could protect” them from destruction.
But the Blitz serves primarily 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. Things become even more complicated when she learns of his affair. It’s over, it was nothing, Paul insists, but the damage has been done.
Both Elinor and Paul harbor guilt over a tainted past. Elinor’s secret, never revealed to anyone, is that she once had sex with her brother. Paul is open about his difficult relationship with his mentally ill mother. While saying farewell after visiting her in an asylum when he was 14, he had pushed her away. Soon thereafter she committed suicide.
Indeed, 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. The men are better as ambulance drivers and rescue squad members than creatures of emotion. Only the evolving Elinor, a driver as well, seems wholly admirable.
In the opening scene, we meet Kenny, a working-class lad dispatched from London to the country home of Elinor’s sister, but desperately lonely for his “mam.” Paul escorts him back to the city. After a bomb destroys the shelter where Kenny and his mother had taken refuge, Paul seeks out a raggedy crone earning her keep as a medium. He wants to know if Kenny survived.
Is she truly “a grotesque Persephone” who could speak for the dead? Though skeptical, he later realizes that his own experience has shown just “how porous was the membrane that divides the living from the dead.”
Barker’s resort to this witch-like figure and her mumbo-jumbo seems an unnecessary and false note in an otherwise first-rate novel.