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Posts Tagged ‘Barbara Noble’

With thanks to the publisher for the review ebook

The lovely Dean Street Press brought out a lovely clutch of Second World War novels last year – and this was one of them. It has been sat on my kindle for some time therefore.

Barbara Noble is probably known best – especially to Persephone fans – for her novel Doreen (1946) – another World War Two novel which paints a very poignant portrait of the relationship between an evacuated child and her mother. It’s something like twelve years since I read it and didn’t review it properly so it’s definitely one I want to pull from the shelf again. The House Opposite is a slightly earlier novel, published in the middle of the war, when no one could be quite certain how things would resolve themselves.

I would say that along with A Chelsea Concerto – another DSP book – The House Opposite provides an extraordinarily vivid picture of what it was really like to live in London during the Blitz. Normal life goes on just the same in a sense, yet the nightly bombardment is never far away whether in people’s minds or in the everyday conversations with neighbours and work colleagues. Work must still be attended – if the buses are running – food acquired and cooked, the minutiae of everyday life attended to, just as if bombs aren’t falling from the sky almost every night. What Barbara Noble doesn’t do which is particularly strong – is to make her novel all about the drama of the Blitz. She shows us the underground stations crammed with people, the rubble strewn streets, the city landscape that is changing almost daily – but it is a background hum, a constant presence with which ordinary life, and each individual’s petty concerns must co-exist.

“All through September they had taken the day raids very seriously at the office. The dingy old-fashioned house held three other firms besides their own and when the sirens sounded most of the personnel of all four would walk or run, as their temperaments directed, down to a basement room which had, by the addition of a little timber, been converted into a shelter. Each small group occupied a separate corner and had provided their own chairs or benches. Some attempt was made to carry on work. Carter staggered up and down with Elizabeth’s typewriter, but there were too many people in a confined space for much mental concentration to be possible.”

Elizabeth Simpson is a young woman in her late twenties – living at home with her parents. They live in a typical London suburban street, and in the house opposite live the Cathcart family. Elizabeth works as a secretary for Alex with whom she has been having an affair for three years. Alex is married with children, a marriage he can’t leave – so he says – because of the children. Alex’s wife and children are living in the country away from the bombs and the devastation. Elizabeth is able to spend time at Alex’s flat without fear of discovery. She keeps a kind of boyfriend Bob Craven – dangling – as a cover for her relationship, no one knows about her and Alex and despite all the difficulties they have kept their secret for three years unsuspected by anyone.

“It was curious that the aerial bombardment of London, which had ennobled so much that was normally sordid, should only debase a love affair between two people who had managed for three years to overcome the threat to their relations implicit in all such. To die together would be simple. It would not be so simple to be dug out still alive from the same collapsed building.”

The day doesn’t end when the working day is done, on many nights Elizabeth must take her turn fire watching with the Cathcart boy from the house across the street. She has also volunteered for a couple of shifts at the hospital – long, gruelling hours where she is faced with some fairly upsetting scenes. Her father is an air raid warden, so on many evenings both father and daughter are out of the house together. Elizabeth and her father have a wonderful relationship, they are clearly cut from the same cloth, and theirs is a relationship built on affection and understanding. Meanwhile Mrs Simpson, left alone in the house as the bombs rain down over the city is terrified. She would like nothing more than to go to the country. She starts to take courage with a little nip of rum that no one knows about. She is comforted further by Peter – her imaginary son – with whom she holds satisfactory conversations, Peter always knows the right thing to say. Mrs Simpson is a sad little character, beautifully portrayed by Noble, though I wanted to know more about her.

Across the road in the house opposite Owen Cathcart is just eighteen years old, having finished with school he awaits his call up, hoping to go into the RAF. An overheard and rather unfortunate remark from Elizabeth in the past has rather coloured his view of both Elizabeth and himself – and it is with some resentment that Owen takes up his fire watching duties alongside her. For years Owen has hero worshipped Derek his slightly older cousin – he starts to fear what his feelings might mean – and is confused and angry a lot of the time. His mother meanwhile is nursing a long held secret that seeps into her brain almost daily, and his father is about to get into trouble with the police, having sold on government timber that shouldn’t be sold on. Owen’s cousin Derek, who Owen joyfully goes off to visit – lives in the country, coincidentally in the village where Alex’s wife and children are spending the war.

Over the course of the novel both Owen and Elizabeth make discoveries about themselves and the people they love. As the nightly bombardment quietens and starts up again, lives move forward just the same. This novel is a brilliant social document – as well as being just a very good read – thoroughly recommended for those of you who like novels of the Second World War.

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