Noonday by Pat Barker

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.

Noonday by Pat Barker
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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]

If you like Noonday, you might also like Toby’s Room by Pat Barker and A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry.

Toby’s Room by Pat Barker

Like Pat Barker’s earlier Regeneration novels, Toby’s Room takes an unflinching look at the human consequences of war. The plot is built on the intense relationship between a brother and sister, Toby and Elinor Brooke. Toby is an officer  during WW1. His sister, Elinor, is an artist studying under Henry Tonks at the Slade School of Art in London in 1912. Among Elinor’s classmates  are artists Kit Neville and Paul Tarrant, both of whom — like Toby — are subsequently drawn into the great war.
The first part of Toby’s Room describes Elinor’s intense relationship with Toby, her somewhat ambiguous relationships with Kit Neville, Paul Tarrant and Catherine Stein and her development as an artist under the direction of Henry Tonks.

Having completed her studies, Elinor returns to live with her mother. She has a premonition that Toby will not return from the war and when he is reported ‘Missing, Believed Killed’ she becomes tormented by the need to find out what happened. She believes that Kit Neville may have information but her attempts to contact Kit prove fruitless and so she enlists Paul Tarrant to persuade Kit to fill in the missing details.

Paul and Kit are both struggling with injuries they received in the war and the strongest section of Toby’s Room is the exploration of Kit’s reaction to the war. When she learns that Kit has been hospitalised as a result of serious facial injury, Elinor persuades Paul to accompany her to the hospital where Kit is being treated by Harold Gillies. At the hospital, Elinor meets Tonks who is working to illustrate the war injuries being treated by Gillies at the hospital. Tonks and Gillies are real historical figures and examples of the work of Henry Tonks can be viewed online in theHenry Tonks WW1 injuries illustrations archive.

The relationship that develops between Paul and Kit is perhaps the most interesting element of Toby’s Room and strong themes relating to art and war are explored in the interactions between these two characters. Through them, Elinor ultimately finds her way to the truth about Toby and is able to ‘move on’ from the past.

At 267 pages, Toby’s Room is a relatively short novel but Pat Barker spins an intense and powerful tale with believable characters and interesting themes.

I purchased the Kindle edition of Toby’s Room by Pat Barker on amazon.com
ISBN: 0241144574. Publisher: Penguin (August 16, 2012)