Pat Barker should need no introduction and this is her latest novel: Noonday [London: Hamish Hamilton, 2015]. She became ‘famous’ with the Man Booker Prize winning The Ghost Road, culmination of the Regeneration trilogy that recounted the WW1 experiences of some of the actual War Poets, their real doctor Rivers, and others as they came to terms, or failed to cope, with the horrors of that war and it’s psychological impact; once known as ‘shell shock’ and latterly PTSD. The irony of their worked-for regeneration was that as soon as the doctor declared them fit they were shipped back to the Western Front; some to die on the eve of Armistice.
With Noonday Barker rounds out her second trilogy which began with Life Class and Toby’s Room. The central characters are Elinor and her friends who studied together at the Slade under the famous Tonks, a brilliant illustrator of the ghastly war wounds, especially facial, that are still the most accurate and graphic depiction of what these entailed in the days before plastic surgery. Elinor, Paul and Kit all have their personal encounters with WW1 but Elinor has the special pain of the death in action of her brother Toby. Kit would have liked to but it is Paul who eventually marries Elinor. Kit suffers the sort of disfigurement that Tonks so carefully recorded.
Now, the three of them are caught up in the London Blitz of WW2 but this time as ambulance drivers and air raid wardens. As with other massive events of death and destruction that later generations can too easily forget, Pat Barker does us all a service by plunging us into the fire storms, the devastation and the occasional wonderfully uplifting moments of rescue.
The events and the several characters’, principal and secondary, stories are interwoven. We hear the voices of them all; each clear and distinct. The Blitz was inescapably a tragedy but, with her talent for voice and language, Barker brings out the humanity latent in everyone. In lesser hands this could have descended into the mawkish and sentimental but Barker’s sharpness of observation lifts it clear of that. Take Elinor’s description of a moment in the shelter:
The usual crowd, mainly women. There’s an old couple who play chess. Rather sweet, really. Oh, and there’s the major, a military gentleman with peppery blue eyes. No nonsense, no emotion, none of that. Only he has this absolutely marvellous moustache – a beautiful red-gold colour. Titian. He takes tremendous care of it, not in public, of course, but you can imagine him, in private, combing and trimming it. In some strange way – in defiance of biology – all the major’s feminine qualities, his vulnerability, his gentleness, are distilled into that moustache. The rest of him is very properly hard, masculine, decisive. And of course he thinks he’s boss. Angela, the shelter warden, manages him very well. She always consults him, very deferentially, before going on to do exactly what she was planning to do anyway.
Every one of Barker’s novels is a good read so, over and above Noonday, there are many hours of satisfying reading from this talented writer.