- Noonday by Pat Barker
Hamish Hamilton, 272 pp, £18.99, August 2015, ISBN 978 0 241 14606 4
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).
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