Noonday is the third book in Pat Barker’s second war trilogy – which began with Life Class and Toby’s Room. The first two novels followed three young artists in the years immediately before, during and after the First World War. In Noonday we meet these characters again in middle age as bombs rain down on England during the autumn of 1940. I particularly loved Toby’s Room; although ridiculously I had forgotten the very end – and had to look it up on Wikipedia (wiki is great for spoiler littered plot summaries). However, I think Noonday would stand up perfectly well on its own, but I do think my reading was enhanced by having read and enjoyed the first two volumes.
Elinor Brooke (still using her maiden name professionally) is married to Paul Tarrant, they haven’t had children and as the novel begins Elinor is staying in the country with her sister Rachel, while their mother is dying. Rachel (critical and traditional as ever) and her husband have an evacuee Kenny from London staying with them, although have done little to make him feel welcome. Kenny feels particularly drawn to Paul, the one person who has shown him sympathy, so when during one of Paul’s visits, and following a particularly bad raid over London, Kenny begs him to take him home to find his mother. It seems already, even as early into the war as 1940 people were bringing their children home in large numbers. Paul helps Kenny find his mother, among the bomb damage and chaos of the East End, worrying whether he has done the right thing exposing the boy to such risk.
“Kenny looked around him. ‘it’s all gone’
Paul opened his mouth, but had no idea what to say. He was about to suggest that Kenny should come back inside the house, when at the far end of the street, they saw a woman walking towards them with a baby in her arms. Kenny ran towards her shouting, ‘Mam! Mam!’ she stopped, but then came on no more quickly. Her clothes were black and torn, her face blackened too. She might even be burnt, Paul thought. At any rate she’d lost her eyebrows. She looked dully at Kenny. ‘Oh it’s you.’”
Back in London Elinor is working as an ambulance driver, alongside her old friend Kit Neville, with whom relations have been a little strained since Elinor’s brother’s death in WW1. In the years since then Kit married Elinor’s best friend and spent several years in America before his divorce. With Paul working as an air raid warden, the three are well placed to view the daily devastation, loss and horror of the nightly raids upon the capital. Paul, Elinor and Kit are of that unlucky generation whose hopes, dreams and youth were effectively destroyed by the First World War, they fought, they lost loved ones, and they came home bearing the scars, physical and mental. The art the three created during that war made their names; they have become well established within the art world, and Elinor asked to become an official war artist, decides to paint the truth, not a sanitised version of it. Now more than twenty years later they are caught up in another war, a war which inevitably brings back memories of that earlier conflict, opens old wounds, and tests their relationships with one another to the limit. Old passions, griefs and obsessions come bubbling to the surface again.
What Pat Barker does so very brilliantly is to explore with devastating authenticity the nightmare that London became, a nightly hell almost unimaginable. Each new day showing newly created spaces where houses once stood, the last of the bodies cleared away, as Londoners try to carry on with their difficult lives. Pat Barker’s war ravaged London is an uncomfortable place to be, forget the stories of sing songs in shelters, and sharing of cocoa, this a place where children die, a place where people wander traumatised and heartbroken through the wreckage of their homes, I think we can all understand how anchorless we would feel if our home was suddenly gone. Part of Elinor’s story is told in diary form in which she describes beautifully how the loss of her own home makes her feel.
“I miss my house. It’s like grief for a person- an actual physical craving – and yes, I know it’s only bricks and mortar and it shouldn’t matter when every day – or rather every night- so many more important things are being lost. Lives, for God’s sake. And yet I can’t talk myself out of it. There’s a particular place – was a particular place – at the bottom of the basement stairs. You turn left and there’s a small window looking out on to the back garden and it has a cupboard underneath. I used to keep a jug of flowers there. We bought the jug in Deià, very cheap, but beautiful, and the flowers came from the garden in summer, in winter it was twigs and leaves, hemlock, I used to get it from the river bank here, catkins… Nothing cost more than a few pennies, but in that particular place, at particular times of day – late afternoon when the sun struck the window at a slight angle and shone through the leaves, delineating every vein on every leaf, it was perfection.”
We meet Bertha Mason, newly released from prison, a medium, who Paul comes across on several occasions, a ward maid in a hospital, her spiritualist evenings are packed with the bereaved. Bertha is an enormous woman, a foul mouthed northerner; she carries the dead with her.
I really think Noonday is quite brilliant, every bit as powerful as much of Pat Barker’s famous Regeneration trilogy. Noonday is the first novel of Barker’s which chronicles the Second World War, and it does so with breath-taking honesty and realism.