Book review: Noonday

Pat BarkerIt seems inevitable that the final novel in a trilogy which started with the Great War should end with the Blitz, and that the theme should be death. Death, grief, guilt at being alive, guilt at longing for death, and guilt at wishing another dead. Noonday is a fitting end to the ‘Life Class’ trilogy by Pat Barker, the tale of three young artists – Elinor Brooke, Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville – which started on the verge of the Great War in Life Class, and continued through the war in Toby’s Room. But although the context is war, there are a lot of other things going on.
The story opens with Elinor at the country home of her mother, who is dying. The assorted relatives wait, in the scorching heat, for death to arrive. Also present is Kenny, an evacuee sent from London to avoid death by bombing. So, the shadow of death is present from the very first page. Don’t forget about Kenny, he is important, particularly in the impact he has on Paul Tarrant – now Elinor’s husband. Paul’s connection with this sorry out-of-place boy leads him to a meeting with a medium, Bertha Mason. This is a story thread criticised by some readers as being irrelevant – and perhaps it is in that it doesn’t connect with either Elinor or Kit – but for me it falls within the theme of grief in war when it is common to not see the body of your loved one. Death, in war, surrounds everyone daily, is expected daily, but is not easier to accept. Perhaps it is understandable that in these circumstances, without a body to bury, communicating with ghosts becomes popular.
As with Life Class and Toby’s Room, the lives of the three protagonists are entwined like snakes. Elinor and Kit are London ambulance drivers, Paul is an air raid warden by night and official war artist by day. The Blitz is the fourth character on the page. The final third of the book is an intense description of the firebombing of the City, an experience which Barker describes with simplicity, urgency, and not a spare word.
Barker is one of my favourite living authors because she writes with such detail about small things, seemingly insignificant ordinary things, but which in her hands and in the context of her story, add layers of meaning. She pays equal attention to the lives of her three main protagonists, the interaction of their lives, and how their desires and motivations impact on each other. She does not step away from sharing an unpleasant thought or action, she tells it as it is, and for this she is a clear voice in a modern world of fiction in which characters often seem too ‘nice’. But that is not realistic and it is not Pat Barker’s way.
For my reviews of the first two novels of the trilogy, click here:-
Life Class
Toby’s Room
For other novels about World War Two, try:-
‘Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase’ by Louise Walters
‘The Paying Guests’ by Sarah Waters
‘Midnight in Europe’ by Alan Furst

‘Noonday’ by Pat Barker, LifeClass trilogy #3 [UK: Hamish Hamilton] Buy now

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