The Blitz is both catalyst and metaphor in Pat Barker’s new novel, Noonday, the third and final instalment of her account of the overlapping lives of the former Slade School art students Elinor Brooke, Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville. In the autumn of 1940, frequent air raids liberate Barker’s characters from ordinary assumptions and shibboleths; their aftermath reflects the slide into lawlessness that such liberation threatens. Collapsing buildings, streets roped off and impassable, pigeons with their wings on fire, the blindness imposed by the blackout, smoke and clouds of plaster dust all coalesce into powerful signifiers of a world imploding. “Incendiaries were drifting down like huge yellow peonies,” we read. The mindless destruction of the capital is simultaneously apocalyptic and beautiful, inhibiting and rich with opportunity. Ideas, emotions and attitudes prove as fragile – and as flammable – as the physical landscape.
Noonday begins two decades after its predecessors, Life Class and Toby’s Room. Elinor and Paul are married but childless, Paul continues to paint and Kit has mostly given up painting for reviewing. None is wholly happy. The fissures in their lives lurk close below the surface. The beginning of the Blitz – with Paul’s work as an air-raid warden and Kit’s and Elinor’s as ambulance drivers, based by chance at the same Tottenham Court Road depot – exposes those fissures. “Nothing quite like the proximity of death to make you feel entitled to grab anything that’s going,” Barker suggests, offering all three a potential mission statement. Only Elinor resists exploiting the lawlessness of wartime London for self-gratification; she alone finds self-fulfilment.
Barker’s reputation rests mostly on her Regeneration trilogy, set during the First World War. In Noonday, it is Paul who invokes the memory of the previous conflict. His comparisons of trench life and Blitz London underline the pointlessness of both and the cruelty of civilian warfare. For Paul, pain, bombs and flares made sense in no-man’s-land, “more sense than lying squashed like a cockroach on the floor of a basement kitchen” over 20 years later. As in her earlier trilogy, Barker’s interest is in exploring the impact on individual lives of such arbitrary suffering.
The novel is predominantly a third-person narrative, with extracts from Elinor’s diary. That she alone should be accorded her own voice in the novel fits Barker’s purpose. In a passage that suggests diaries written by members of the Bloomsbury group, Elinor writes: “I’m a pinprick, a speck, a bee floating and drowning on a pool of black water, surrounded by ever-expanding, concentric rings of silence. I rub my wings together, or do whatever it is that bees do that makes a noise, but there’s no buzzing.”
Bombs destroy Elinor’s and Paul’s married home and also Kit’s. It is Elinor who successfully makes a new home for herself and finds a way forward as one of Kenneth Clark’s war artists. Independent, reinvigorated in her love of painting, Elinor rediscovers how to buzz again. Or nearly, as Barker is not a trite writer and resists fobbing us off with neat resolutions.
Readers of Life Class and Toby’s Room are unlikely to be surprised by the emotional contortions of Noonday. In essence, the novel’s plot is a simple one that is best not spoiled by the reviewer. Instead, Barker exploits the opportunities posed by the Blitz and its mostly nocturnal world of terror, chaos and exhaustion to offer the reader kaleidoscopic snapshots of a society close
to the edge. The shifting fortunes of – among others – a cockney evacuee, a chippy cab driver, the heavily bejewelled widow of a colonial administrator and a down-at-heel medium called Bertha Mason (a desperate, latter-day Mrs Gamp) illustrate the scale of the Blitz’s social impact; they are boldly coloured controlled experiments against which to measure the behaviour of the novel’s main characters. Paul suffers from recurrent bouts of vertigo. In one way or another, all of the novel’s characters experience similar disorientation.
Noonday is a more successful novel than Toby’s Room. Elinor emerges more fully: her plight is more acute and more involving. Doughtiness, opportunism, fear and a frenetic amorality characterise Barker’s version of the Blitz mentality: it is left to the reader to unravel who, in this maelstrom, retains our sympathy. This is a novel of sure-footed storytelling and some fine descriptive writing. It does not necessarily expand our understanding of the world it depicts but it focuses our thoughts and consistently engages the imagination.
Noonday by Pat Barker is published by Hamish Hamilton (272pp, £18.99)
This article appears in the 14 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn supremacy