Look for online images of London during the blitz and you immediately get a sense of the setting for Pat Barker’s latest novel, Noonday. Darkness, death and destruction are everywhere but so too are images of people carrying on, doing their bit, recovering, rescuing, repairing and surviving.
Into this setting, Barker places the three central characters that we first encountered in her earlier novels, Life Class and Toby’s Room: Elinor Brooke, Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville met at the Slade School of Art before the outbreak of the first world war. They share a history in which Elinor’s brother, Toby, played a central part.
Now, in Noonday, which is set during the autumn of 1940, art takes second place to duty with Elinor and Kit working as ambulance drivers while Paul is an air-raid warden.
The novel opens with Elinor visiting her sister Rachel’s home in the country where their mother is dying. Rachel is doing her bit by taking in a boy, Kenny, who was evacuated from London. He is not an altogether welcome visitor in the house and we get glimpses of how uncomfortable his life is through his treatment by the servants. Barker shows us, however, that Kenny’s life is better than that of many children in his situation — the ones selected because they looked strong enough to work, the pretty girls selected for more troubling reasons.
Kenny is homesick and wants to return to London and find his mother. When Elinor’s husband, Paul decides to help Kenny, it sets off a chain of events that drives the rest of the story. It’s Kenny that leads Paul to the psychic, Bertha Mason whose vision of the recently deceased not yet realising they are dead captures the chaotic aftermath of arbitrary destruction.
The relationships between Elinor, Paul and Kit remain complicated in Noonday. In the end though, this is not so much a novel of plot or character as it is a reflection on war’s impact on human nature which is territory Pat Barker always handles well.
[Disclosure: An advance review copy was made available by the publisher via Netgalley for the purpose of this review]