Years ago, I read Regeneration, the first in Barker’s trilogy about World War I — and it totally blew me away. At that time, I knew nothing about Pat Barker. In fact, I was stunned when I learned that the author was female, as I assumed only a man who had experienced battle could write such a searing indictment of war. Since then, I have been in awe of Barker, and was ecstatic to have the opportunity to receive a preview of her forthcoming novel, Noonday, from NetGalley in exchange for my review.
I dived in, and read late into the night, stopping only out of exhaustion…and kept at it, although I admittedly took a few breaks when the story overwhelmed me – Barker’s skill in capturing the horror of war is unreal.
It was only after I finished the book and found myself feeling slightly unsettled by the story that I went looking for information about the writing of the book and then SMH!!!!! (Smack My Head!) I learned that this is the THIRD book in Barker’s trilogy set in World War II England. (more on this later)
The story in Noonday revolves around Elinor Brooke, Kit Neville and Paul Tarrant – all of whom appeared in the first two novels in the series, Life Class and Toby’s Room. In Noonday, Elinor is married to Paul, and she and Kit both work as ambulance drivers in London during the Blitz, while Paul is an air-raid warden. Toby, Elinor’s brother, died in the Great War, but Elinor’s memories of him are strong enough that he remains a significant character. In fact, the impact of Toby in her life is revealed early in the book: “When he was alive, Toby’s presence had been the only thing that made weekends with the rest of her family bearable.”
Another character who impacts events in the book is Kenny, a child who has been relocated to the country to escape the horror of London during the Blitz. Elinor isn’t overly fond of Kenny, and she realizes “he was the sort of child who attracts bullying, she thought, guiltily conscious of her own failure to like him.” She does feel something for him, though: “…he’d arrived in the village with no name, no history. Something about that appealed to Elinor.” But it is Paul to whom Kenny gravitates, and it is Paul who will help Kenny return to London and wander the streets with him as he tries to reunite with his family.
Elinor is childless, a status that is snidely commented on by a live-in helper at her sister Rachel’s house, Mrs. Murchison: “…she’d heard Mrs. Murchison whisper to the woman beside her: “She’s a Miss, you know.” Elinor knew exactly what she meant. Miss-take. Missed out. Even perhaps, miss-carriage?” Elinor tries to take it in stride: “Of course there’d always be people like her, people who regarded childless women as hardly women at all.”
Elinor’s mother is dying as the book begins, and the description of her room is chilling, perhaps particularly for anyone who has gone through this ordeal: “A fug of illness rose to meet her: aging flesh in hot sheets, camphor poultices that did no good at all, a smell of feces and disinfectant from the commode in the far corner.” Elinor’s relationship with Rachel is strained by the stronger relationship Elinor had with their brother Toby, and despite Elinor’s talent as an artist, Rachel’s house is “…beautifully furnished. Oriental rigs, antique furniture—good paintings, too. Nothing of hers, though. She had three in the Tate; none here.”
Elinor is at midlife as she waits with Rachel for their mother to die. “After each dragging pause, the skeletal chest expanded again. Let go, just let go. Elinor almost said it aloud, only she was too ashamed, knowing it was her own deliverance she was pleading for.” After her mother’s death “Elinor went to her own room, also grieving, not for what she’d lost, but for what she’d never had, and never could have now.” These passages give the reader an anguished look at the family dynamic, magnified by the revelation of the nature of Elinor’s relationship with Toby (which I suspect was known to readers of the earlier books in the series, but which came as a shock to me).
Another character is the “witch of Endor,” who conducts an séance that is attended by Paul, distraught after events during a bombing and its impact on Kenny. There is a wrenching scene in which desperate relatives pay to attend this event, which is revealed as a sham conducted by a fraud who claims she is calling the dead back to life to “speak to” their loved ones.
The book captures the horror of the Blitz and the effect it begins to have on the citizens, both in the city and at Rachel’s house in the country: “how easily they’d all come to accept it: searchlights over the church at night, blacked-out houses, the never-ending pop-pop of guns on the marshes.”
There is a spiraling tension as the war worsens and the characters search for comfort, finding it in ways that will both bind them and tear them apart.
I am still in awe of Pat Barker’s skillful writing, about war and relationships, family and fear. After thinking about it, I decided that any disappointment or lack of satisfaction I might have initially felt upon completion of the book likely stemmed from my lack of familiarity with the characters. This was reinforced by the following online review I found: “ I wonder if anyone reading this as a ‘free-standing’ book will successfully appreciate the complex back story of the relationships between the three principle characters. I also found myself re-reading some passages to understand which of the three points of view I was now following.
Having said that, this is without question the best researched and most compelling fictional account of the Blitz I’ve ever read. Pat Barker cleverly lulls you into a false sense of security, as the ambulance crews and wardens seem to dodge bombs and incendiaries with amazing impunity. Then, of course, we experience the cruelly indiscriminate nature of the bombing.”
That eloquently sums it up! In order to do it justice, I plan to re-read Noonday after reading the first two books in the series, but it is seriously worth FIVE STARS. Pat Barker is incredible.