Artists in the Blitz. Book review: Noonday by Pat Barker
The last in a trilogy about a trio of artists is at its best in the Blitz, writes Eileen Battersby
Pat Barker. Photograph: Ellen Warner
A trio of characters first encountered some years ago as aspiring artists are now encountering another World War and this time one much closer to home in Pat Barker’s new novel, Noonday. In it, the three – Elinor Brooke, Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville – have more or less unhappily reached middle age, their former expectations somewhat battered as the London Blitz threatens their existences, shared or otherwise.
With Life Class (2007) Barker began their respective stories as students at the Slade College of Art. That first book concentrated on the contrasting personalities of the three: Elinor was a restless spirit breaking free of her bourgeois family, while Tarrant was the raw working-class lad funded by a legacy and Neville, rich, caustic and nasty, had one human weakness, Elinor.
The novel floundered as it focused on social observation and character interaction. Barker’s gifts had emerged through her three finest novels: Regeneration (1991), The Eye in the Door (1993) and her 1995 Booker-winning The Ghost Road which brought the Regeneration trilogy to its triumphant finale.
Barker is a teller of truths and her narratives are driven by events. Her vivid, economic prose does not soar. Although she is often inspired in her handling of the ambivalence of human behaviour, her characterisation tends to be flat. Incidental dialogue is not her forte. No one would describe her as a stylist yet she possesses dramatic instinct in abundance. While Toby’s Room (2012) revisited much of the material of Life Class, it also served to draw the story to where Barker appears most fulfilled as a writer: when evoking the horrors of the Great War. Her passionate engagement with it has produced her finest work and the Regeneration trilogy is great literature in that it informs as truth while also engaging as art.
Toby’s Room, with its lack of period atmosphere and stilted deference to Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room (1922), and based, as is Woolf’s novel, on the death at the Front of a beloved brother, is at best earnest.
Toby’s Room only acquired a sense of purpose when the action moved to the Great War. Even so it did not, on publication, suggest that it was the mid-point of a proposed trilogy, yet Noonday now brings the story to its close. Readers of the two earlier novels will immediately settle into this one, yet it also works as a stand-alone volume.
The three central characters are no more likeable than in the previous books. In the opening sequence, when Elinor arrives to be present at her mother’s expected death, Barker does suggest the personal price artists tend to pay. Elinor continues to live at a remove from her family. In contrast to the surreal mood inevitable during a death-bed vigil is the clear resentment Elinor’s sister Rachel harbours towards the young London evacuee, Kenny, imposed upon her.
The boy is harshly treated and Barker, always candid, describes how the way they got rid of his head lice was to shave his skull.
The sole child in whom Elinor’s mother shows any interest remains her dead son Toby. Kenny runs away, intent on returning to his family in London. Barker shares his commitment and, once the action shifts to a London ravaged by the Blitz, she musters her considerable resources. Few writers have as consistently shown such a responsible and respectful use of source material as Barker and it does no disservice to her as a novelist to suggest that Noonday is recommended reading not for the respective stories of the forgettable central characters but for the insights she gives of the hardships Londoners endured during the Blitz.
Barker evokes a sense of the chaos and unreality of the devastation caused by the night bombings: “At first nobody spoke, and then a few whispers began to break the cathedral hush. There was a time bomb in the street. Nobody was allowed to go home and, after the long night in a cramped, foul-smelling shelter, that was hard. An old lady with her hair in thin, grey plaits was trembling with shock, or perhaps it was just the general frailty of age, and yet she seemed cheerful; defiant, even.”
None of the artists, even allowing for the distractions of living in a city reduced to a prime target, convince as artists. Elinor and Paul’s marriage has entered stalemate while the dreaded and unexpectedly increasing sympathetic Kit, chastened to some extent by his wartime disfigurement and desk job using his contentious aptitude for German, again gets to say most of the best lines. He also appears to have an inner life: “Neville’s dislike of the Ministry of Information had become an almost hysterical loathing. He dates the change to one apparently endless afternoon when it first occurred to him that the ministry was alive: that its corridors were the intestines of some flabby, flatulent beast farting memos, reports and minutes that always had to be initialled and passed on, though as far as he could tell no action was ever taken.”
Some of the writing is very flat; the descriptions predictable and many of the images are clichéd, possibly because of the brisk narrative drive which reveals its intent early on. The prevailing feeling is that of a story winding down. In the middle of all this is some earthy Northern humour and a bizarre creation, that of an opportunistic clairvoyant by the name of Bertha Mason.
Barker makes no reference to Mr Rochester’s demented first wife. It proves a strange episode yet also presents Barker with a fugue which she handles with gritty aplomb. The most convincing element is the Blitz and the horror of people waiting for death to fall from the sky. All they can do is simply gather the dead and dying or hope to free the living imprisoned under debris. Late in the novel Elinor, on ambulance duty, is shocked by the sight of terrified dray horses pounding towards her, manes on fire.
This trilogy might have made a more satisfying single novel. It is too easy to dismiss Noonday as a worthy restating of two previous instalments about artists (loosely based on real-life painters) which has little to do with art. That is true: Barker does not even pretend to write about art because she is writing a book about war, her chosen subject and one which she has mastered.
Yet there is another theme, the half-hearted though lingering resentment Kit has for the good-looking, unfaithful Paul who effortlessly snared Elinor, an irritatingly independent modern girl. When Elinor coolly decides to settle scores it results in a brilliantly written confrontation between the two men. Admittedly it is interrupted by a bomb crashing through the building. Nonetheless, it provides Kit with his finest moment.
In a deeply serious narrative about complex relationships acted out under ongoing peril Barker, who all too often pays for the weighty integrity of her vision, writes a wonderful comic scene. Elinor and a colleague, having delivered four corpses to a mortuary, are turned away for failing to supply death certificates. Funny thing, war.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent