“Noonday” by Pat Barker – Living outside time

This is my review of Noonday by Pat Barker.

Noonday is the third part of a trilogy based on the triangular relationship between three artists, whose lives are defined by World War 1 in their youth, and World War 2 in late middle age. This is Pat Barker’s second trilogy about war, which obviously fascinates her in both its arbitrary physical violence and more complex psychological effects on both soldiers and civilians. The prickly Elinor Brooke, perhaps not as independent as she seems, the talented, rambunctious but inwardly insecure Kit Neville, and introverted, somewhat enigmatic and troubled Paul seem to have become real and familiar people for her, providing endless scope to explore their thoughts and motivations.

This is not a stand-alone book, in that I think it is essential to have read the second novel “Toby’s Room” (and ideally Life Class as well) to know the circumstances of the death of Elinor’s brother Toby at the front, and Kit’s part in it. I realised when reading “Toby’s Room” that plot has become unimportant to Pat Barker over the years. I sympathise with readers who found the early chapters of “Noonday” a struggle, since they often seemed like padding or fillers to reach the next incident or situation of interest to her. A few points caught my attention: the sense of menace combined with unreality created by the German bomber planes “circling like gnats” over a Home Counties garden; the long shadow cast by the death of the mythically heroic Toby, to the extent that his grief-stricken mother finds a reluctant substitute for him in her grandson Alex, who has the misfortune of looking very like him.

Otherwise, I felt quite unengaged in disjointed events which may be realistic but do not feed any narrative drive – the slow death of the mother with whom Elinor never shared any mutual love or understanding, Paul’s obsessive flashback’s to his own mother’s sickness and death, the daily grind of Paul and Elinor’s lives in London as respectively an air-raid warden and an ambulance driver. It’s all fairly bleak but preferable to the implausible appearance of a medium who is clearly a fraud, yet it would seem haunted by a ghost from the trenches. As Paul paced the dark London streets rather than take refuge in a shelter “he found it easy to believe they were leading him to a secret chamber, right at the heart of the blacked-out city, where a white, bloated figure sat enthroned, a grotesque Persephone, claiming to speak for millions of the mouthless dead.”

I fear that the ludicrous Bertha Mason (shades of Jane Eyre) caused me to skip in despair, until I found Chapter 23, which is where Pat Barker reaches the culminating stage of the trilogy, the unresolved tension of Kit Neville’s unrequited love for Elinor, his subconscious hatred of Paul as a rival – in love and art, a powder key which can be sparked by the device of Paul’s betrayal of Elinor in the odd, disrupted limbo of London in the blitz, where “living outside time”, the old rules do not apply. At last, in the final hundred or so pages, I found the chain of dramatic events, ironic twists, expression of real emotion at last and strong dialogue I had been missing.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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