Noonday by Pat Barker

Look for online images of London during the blitz and you immediately get a sense of the setting for Noonday by Pat Barker.

Darkness, death and destruction are everywhere. So, too, are images of people carrying on. They do their bit, recovering, rescuing, repairing and surviving.

Into this setting, Barker places three central characters that we first encountered in her earlier novels. Elinor Brooke, Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville appeared in Life Class and Toby’s Room.

These characters first met at the Slade School of Art before the outbreak of World War 1. They share a history in which Elinor’s brother, Toby, played a central part.

Autumn of 1940

Now, in Noonday, set during the autumn of 1940, art takes second place to duty. Elinor and Kit work as ambulance drivers while Paul is an air-raid warden. The novel opens with Elinor visiting her sister Rachel’s home in the country. There, their mother is dying. Rachel has taken in a boy, Kenny, who was evacuated from London. He is not an altogether welcome visitor in the house. 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 of his peers. It was not unusual for children to be selected by families because they looked strong enough to work.  Pretty girls were sometimes 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]

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
ISBN: 0241144574. Publisher: Penguin (August 16, 2012)


The Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker

The Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker comprises three novels — Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road — set during the first world war.

The novels are about the WWI experiences of poets Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and a fictional third character, Billy Prior.

Pat Barker sensitively explores the mental health problems caused by the horrors of war. All three characters in these novels spend time in Craiglockhard, a Military hospital, under the care of a psychiatrist, Dr Rivers. The telling of their stories is human, moving and absolutely compelling. If you have been scared off by the subject matter, or perhaps like me, thought you were not a reader of war fiction, I encourage you to reconsider. This is perhaps the most powerful series I have ever read. I thoroughly recommend it.

If you like Pat Barker’s fiction, you might also like Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks and Sebastian Barry’s novel A Long, Long Way