Noonday by Pat Barker review – love triangle loses its way in the blitz

Away from the fields of Flanders, Pat Barker’s characters fail to convince in the last part of an otherwise well-researched wartime trilogy

The second world war, in our literature, somehow lacks the pity and fear so remorselessly inspired by the first world war. Strangely, the global conflict that saw the Holocaust, the Normandy landings and the bombing of Hiroshima remains somehow less terrible than the events still known as “the Great War”.

The poets, who imaginatively colonised Flanders in their response to the slaughter in the trenches, have a lot to answer for, as Pat Barker must know only too well. She made their landscape and suffering her own in the Regeneration trilogy. But that was in the 90s. Now, after one or two dud rounds (Double Vision in 2003 was not a success), here she is challenging her own mastery of the frontline, and moving from the poets’ war to the people’s war. Barker’s Life Class trilogy, which culminates in Noonday, is set on the home front of the second world war and, in particular, the London Blitz, a subject that’s lately begun to attract a lot of attention in fiction and non-fiction, from Lara Feigel’s The Love-charm of Bombs to Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch.

Just as this trilogy’s second volume (Toby’s Room) deliberately echoed Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, a novel written in memory of her brother, so Noonday makes both explicit and unconscious reference to the literature of the Blitz, notably Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day and Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair (with sly allusions to The Ministry of Fear and some of Greene’s autobiographical writing about the war). Noonday is nothing if not historical, bristling with period detail and gritty, well-researched atmosphere. Here, as you’d expect, Pat Barker excels.

A street in central London in 1940, the morning after an air raid.
A street in central London in 1940, the morning after an air raid. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

The difficulties start with her leading characters. The three main ones (central to Life Class and Toby’s Room) are former students at the Slade School of Artcorrect, where they studied under the famous Henry Tonks. Elinor Brooke is at the centre of a love triangle, comprising her husband, Paul (a double for Billy Prior in the Regeneration novels), and an old flame, Kit Neville, loosely based on Christopher Nevinson, an art student who served with the Medical Corps and became known for his paintings of the first world war.

This arty Edwardian trio have already done noble fictional service on behalf of their generation in the first two volumes. Their hopes have died on the fields of Flanders; they have confronted the challenges of art versus war and have struggled to rebuild their lives in the desolate aftermath of an appalling conflict. Barker’s account of Kit Neville’s facial wounds treatment at Queen Mary’s hospital in Sidcup was a widely praised set piece.

Twenty years on, in 1940, Elinor, Kit and Paul are still in a state of unresolved mutual obsession when they all get caught up in the blitz. We encounter Elinor working alongside Kit, moving between bomb sites and hospital wards to save the lives of injured civilians, while Paul is up there, on the roof, serving as an air-raid warden.

But this third part of the trilogy has a problem that did not affect the Regeneration novels. Barker’s characters not only have to make an awkward transition between generations, they also have plausibly to inhabit a different cultural and intellectual milieu. As if this wasn’t enough to contend with, Noonday is narrated from their three contrasting points of view. The upshot is that, while Barker’s research is as impressive as ever, her characters seem not to be integrated into her fictional wartime landscape, but visiting as outsiders.

Still, there is plenty to celebrate. Barker extracts maximum narrative advantage from the blitz: anything goes. The terrifying autumn of 1940 was a moment when Londoners played truant from their own lives and went awol psychologically. The daily threat of imminent death raining from the skies, sharpened everyone’s appetite for life and love. The long-buried passions in the lives of Barker’s protagonists begin to rekindle in the smoky darkness of the bombing. Elinor sleeps with Kit. Paul confronts Kit with his betrayal. Elinor, wrestling with her feelings for her husband and her lover, tries to choose. Kit’s shocking sexual violence morphs into the mayhem on the streets. In a climactic air raid, in which horses “with manes and tails on fire” gallop through the carnage, Elinor sees Kit overwhelmed by destruction and is left with the desolate comfort of her empty marriage to Paul.

Regent’s Park, however, is not the Somme and Noonday is not Regeneration or The Ghost Road, but an honourable, slightly overstretched coda to both. It’s an interesting, imaginative journey into another British wartime landscape that somehow still refuses to yield the narrative gold of those battlefields just across the Channel.

Noonday is published by Hamish Hamilton (£18.99). Click here to order it for £15.19


Robert McCrum

The GuardianTramp

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