Pat Barker has written about war, mostly the First World War, again and again. In her new novel, Noonday, the last book in a trilogy, she takes characters forged in the first war, in Life Class (2007) and Toby’s Room (2012), on into the second – or into the second phase of one long conflict. They are middle-aged in the London Blitz. Why the preoccupation? The men and women who lived through those wars, or died in them, wrote with devastating eloquence: what more is there to say, that Ford and Brittain and Owen and Remarque and all the other chroniclers of both conflicts haven’t said already? Shouldn’t we, out of respect, leave them the last word?
The answer could be a cynical one – that Barker found an audience with her first trilogy, Regeneration, and saw no reason not to stick with it. Or, less cynically, that she found herself as a writer on that terrain – only that would be to ignore the power of her early books, particularly Union Street, set in the working-class communities of the North-East in the 1970s. The true answer, I think, may be more uncanny. Barker’s writing has gravitated to war because there’s something wild and unstable in her idiosyncratic vision. In wartime, those social and moral and imaginative securities which might usually seem like fixtures are all overturned.
In the middle of Noonday, Elinor Brooke’s home is bombed – or at least a bomb falling nearby makes it unsafe to live in. Elinor ‘could even see into her kitchen. The dresser had somehow become jammed at an angle to the wall. She caught a glint of knives and forks, the blue and white fragments of a serving dish.’ She and her husband, Paul Tarrant, find temporary lodgings and then within days that place is gone too.
So there they were, for the second time in a week, homeless … the newly risen sun glinted on the silver barrage balloons and silhouetted the broken outline of bombed and partially demolished buildings. The usual smell of charred timber and burning bricks. On the other side of the tape was sunlit emptiness. A man, standing halfway up the road, shimmered in the heat from a still smouldering building. He seemed almost to be walking on water.
These rooms ripped open by the bombings – a vase of red plastic roses on a sideboard, a saucepan that has come to rest by a sink – aren’t merely illustrative, or pious efforts at fictional reconstruction: they feel like the novel’s essential gesture.
It’s not that Barker enjoys the ripping open, but she seems to write in expectation of some kind of catastrophic overturning (whether she’s writing about war or not). At the very least she makes us rethink any closure we may imagine we’ve achieved with our wartime past; the problem with too many contemporary novels which exploit this material is that they merely recycle a by now familiar treatment of it, accompanied by hand-wringing. The reopening of old wounds is a characteristic – a defining – Barker gesture. And of course the new war opens the barely healed wounds of the old one. The rivalries and attractions between three young artists, Elinor and Paul and Kit Neville, were at the heart of Life Class and Toby’s Room, and twenty years later, in autumn 1940, they are still unresolved. They’re all doing war work in London, as air-raid wardens or ambulance drivers, through night after night of bombing. And they’re all still painting, or at least planning to resume painting when real life starts up again, jostling for commissions from the War Artists Advisory Committee. They’re bound in an intimate rivalry that ranges from an extreme tenderness to extremes of betrayal and violence (there’s a rape, and there’s almost a murder).
Elinor and Paul are married and childless; Neville is estranged from his wife, who has gone to America with his young daughter, and has never quite got over his obsession with Elinor. Paul is unfaithful under cover of the raids, sending Elinor away into the country. Neville’s futuristic cityscapes were a success in the 1920s but no one’s very interested in what he’s doing now; he and Paul have war paintings in the galleries but both struggle with a perception that ‘their best work – at least their best-known work – was behind them.’ There are younger, more fashionable artists, ready to depict a new war for a new generation; Kenneth Clark (who looks ‘taller and broader-shouldered than he actually is – it’s amazing what a first-rate tailor can achieve’) makes a cameo appearance as general fixer and taste-adjudicator. Clark invites Elinor (cheaper, because among the War Artists ‘men are salaried, women aren’t’) to make some paintings of the Home Front. ‘I’ve got a pretty good idea of what he’ll want me to do – rosy-cheeked children, safely evacuated from the cities … Oh, and land girls, that’ll be the other thing.’ He wants her ‘uniquely feminine vision’, but Elinor doesn’t agree that women are more compassionate than men. She knows she’ll be in trouble when she paints the dead child she saw being pulled out of rubble: ‘Bad for morale.’ In fact, because Elinor is marginal in the men’s competition for status and recognition, she feels freer, and it’s easier for her to work: she draws children, queues outside the shelters in the Underground, ruins growing over with buddleia and rosebay willowherb.
Elinor is haunted by her brother Toby, a doctor who died in the First World War – in Noonday his absence is everywhere. We knew from Neville at the end of Toby’s Room, as far as we could know anything for certain, that Toby didn’t die heroically tending the wounded, but went into no-man’s-land meaning to get himself killed, because he was about to be court-martialled for having sex with a stable boy. We also know what Elinor doesn’t, and Paul does – that it was Neville who reported Toby’s transgression, perhaps out of unconsidered prejudice. Or was it unconsidered? Neville is a hater, not a moralist: in the war-world hate, like sex, escapes its constraints. Neville may have envied Toby for being glorious and golden and impervious to others’ weaknesses, for driving his men in pursuit of his own heroic ideal – and for his Military Cross. Toby was an officer, Neville wasn’t. ‘Brooke was a hero,’ Neville says. ‘I was a fat man with a toothache.’ We only have Neville’s word anyway, for any of it. Toby is still an enigma after twenty years: he may have been what Neville made of him, or the archetypal lost boy his mother mourns for, or the missing half of Elinor’s self (we learn that he did have a twin, a girl, who was flattened in the womb as he grew – a rare ‘papyrus twin’, preserved in a bottle in a lab somewhere).
Buried even more deeply in the trilogy than the secret of Toby’s homosexuality (which readers guessed as soon as they saw him in Life Class, practising for an anatomy test with his friend from medical school) is a stranger plot twist; the incestuous attraction, consummated once before the war, between him and Elinor. In the opening scenes of Noonday, twenty years after his death, their dying mother accuses Elinor, almost jealously: ‘Bed creaking, night after night, you must’ve thought I was stupid, I knew whose room it was coming from.’ What are we supposed to make of their mother’s mistake: malevolent exaggeration, appalled distortion, or a genuine misreading of what happened? Or are we supposed to mistrust Elinor’s version? Or was Toby having sex with someone else? We don’t get any reliable explanation. Nobody’s story corresponds with anyone else’s and the frayed edges of experience don’t match up; usually in fiction any such raggedness is tidied into meaningful shape. It’s part of the distinctive lifelike oddity of Barker’s writing that it remains.
The incest story is strange enough, but what’s stranger still – and perhaps rather marvellous – is that it isn’t allowed to swallow up the rest of what happens. The episode is treated with clear-eyed calm (by the writer, not by Elinor): there it is, sex between brother and sister, an unsettling element in their lives alongside other much worse things, like the war to come. There’s no indication of how we’re supposed to connect Toby’s desire for Elinor with his homosexuality, either. And all the way through Life Class, the first book of the trilogy, we didn’t know anything about this having happened to Elinor, although we’ve seemed to be inside her thoughts sometimes. This is another sort of frayed edge. Did Barker know it had happened and hold it back, or did the incest first occur to her after finishing Life Class?
Barker is a much more peculiar writer, I think, than she’s sometimes made out to be. Discussion of her novels can make her sound like a solid worker who deploys an old-fashioned and unexamined realism. I often find her books unsatisfying at first read, on just those grounds: she can seem hasty, perfunctory, over-literal. She repeats herself unnecessarily (she twice mentions that women War Artists weren’t salaried, and says that Paul is elated by the clocks being broken). Sometimes her underlining feels heavy-handed. In Noonday, for instance, almost as soon as the novel begins, Elinor confronts her brother’s portrait: ‘Item: one standard-issue gallant young officer, Grim Reaper for the use of … When he was alive, Toby’s presence had been the only thing that made weekends with the rest of her family bearable. Now this portrait – that blank, lifeless face – was a reminder that she was going to have to face them alone.’ The meaning here seems too explicit, too easily stated; it would have been subtler to have approached the portrait and the reasons for Elinor’s loneliness inside her family more obliquely and incrementally. It’s not clear, either, why some passages are written in the close third person, and others later in the novel in the first person, in the form of her diary – the switch seems a convenience, as opposed to a way of accessing different orders of insight.
Barker isn’t a formalist, or in any ordinary sense a stylist. She follows the conventional novel’s pedestrian habit of putting one thing after another, and another. Sometimes this ordinary register feels strained: a man’s head, say, blown off in a back garden, is registered in passing, just like that. Or, here’s Paul reacting to finding a married couple dead in their bed, unscathed and still holding hands. ‘He’d seen so many more horrific things than that old couple, but he knew they were going to haunt him, possibly for quite a long time. Do something – that was the thing. Keep busy.’ Can that commonsensical syntax and vocabulary behold such sights and do them justice? Isn’t the best realism more circumspect at such moments, and shouldn’t the writer resist the banalities of commentary?
Like all interesting writers Barker has to teach us how to read her. Afloat on the ordinariness of her prose style, we’re carried to strange places. Realism isn’t as realistic as all that, and the imitation of life, in the right hands, is powerful magic. Although Barker’s writing, sentence by sentence, can seem conventional, I don’t think she’s capable of a conventional thought. (All too often, one’s disappointed to discover banalities underneath a clever style.) She refuses to settle, for instance, what Toby was, or what he meant. As in a life, things needn’t cohere: the papyrus twin, the stable boy, the conflicting stories of his kindness and his cruelty. On the last page of Toby’s Room there’s an image neither prepared for nor explained afterwards. Long after Toby’s death, Elinor slept in his bed one night and seemed to see her brother, or dream of him. Next morning when she stripped the bed ‘she uncovered a small stain on the mattress, a crescent shape, like a foetus curled up in the womb, or a dolphin leaping. She pulled the blanket up to hide it.’ Is the stain some trace of his night with Elinor (surely not, though she may think so), or a reminder of how he flattened his dead twin in the womb, or an echo of Cleopatra’s Antony, showing his back dolphin-like above the water? The image resists reduction, persists as itself, eloquent for Elinor and for us. What happens, or what’s seen, won’t resolve conveniently, in Barker’s writing, into meaning.
We’re crossing a field with Elinor in Noonday and she’s unhappy. Her marriage seems to be over; she’s slept with Neville, but that isn’t a solution to anything.
I was trudging along, looking at my feet, thinking about the painting, my fingers still feeling the imprint of the brush … And then I glanced up and noticed a curious seething movement in the grass on the other side of a long field. I couldn’t make out what it was: some reflection of the clouds, I thought at first, but then I realised the river was coming to meet me. It had burst its banks and flooded the low ground.
Or, Elinor and Neville are in Russell Square together, and although they aren’t touching, he seems to feel the sensations of her touch along his body. ‘Could you hallucinate touch? Well, obviously, yes, since he’d just been doing it. And when he lay back and closed his eyes, the sensation came back. So in the end he simply surrendered to it, lying beside her on the grass, touching and not touching, soaking up the last of the sun.’ In the middle of passages which seem everyday, the writing falls through into a different, uncanny place.
Noonday vibrates with this strangeness, and Barker wraps its story around a character new to the trilogy: a medium, part-charlatan but mostly an authentic hearer of voices, tapping into an underworld crazily busy with the newly dead. Bertha Mason (it can’t be by chance that her name is the same as that of the madwoman in the attic in Jane Eyre) is half-articulate, a misfit, wounded, fat and wild; scary witch and abused girl at once. Paul can’t forget seeing her naked, ‘the sheer size of her: chins, neck, breasts, belly – all pendulous – the sagging, wrinkled abdomen hanging so low it almost hid the fuzz of black hair beneath.’ If you wanted to draw out any single theme from the imagery in the trilogy, it would be the horror and miracle and fragility of flesh: the smashing of flesh in war, Neville’s face reconstructed lovingly through surgery, the secret touching of sister and brother, Neville tending to a bedridden Paul after an attack of vertigo, the rape, the dead couple holding hands, the anatomy lesson where Toby has his own insides drawn on his skin, Neville surreptitiously touching Elinor’s breasts, Elinor nursing Toby through high fever, their mother’s drawn-out death. Everything can be smashed, and nothing lasts, but in the meantime there’s this miracle of incarnation, and contact: messy and imperfect, but nonetheless what we are. And then there’s the messy, imperfect business of trying to capture the story of flesh, to put it down in paint, or in words.