Noonday by Pat Barker
3rd Aug 2015
Noonday is Barker’s first foray into Second World War writing; she tends instead to focus on the lives of soldiers and civilians in the First World War. The book can also be read as a stand-alone novel.
Noonday continues to chronicle the lives of Elinor, now working as an ambulance driver, and her husband Paul, who works as an air-raid warden. Their marriage has lost its lustre and the characters exist in the terrifying uncertainty of the London Blitz. It feels inevitable when affairs begin.
Trying to break up the couple is their old student friend, Kit, who has always had feelings for Elinor. He doesn’t have much power in his life, with his young daughter living with her mother in America, so he tries to retrieve his feelings of masculinity.
The novel begins outside of the city. Elinor is helping her sister take care of Kenny, a child who had been shipped out to the countryside. Kenny just wants to be back in London with his mother. Paul feels sorry for Kenny and takes the child back to the capital. It is here that the reader first feels the horrors of the Blitz, especially opposed to the relative calm of the English countryside.
They are suffering from their own shell-shock, which Barker covered so well in the Regeneration trilogy. Barker uses her understanding of trauma, as seen in those novels, to bring these horrors to British soil.Kenny haunts the novel. Paul believes that, through him taking the child back, he has sent him to his death. Barker examines the thoughts of all three protagonists and Paul’s thought processes here are interesting. He begins an affair with a colleague and he doesn’t seem to find the woman he has an affair with terribly attractive, but he sees their tryst as inevitable.
Here we see the impact of war on the lives of individual civilians. They are suffering from their own shell-shock, which Barker covered so well in the Regeneration trilogy. Barker uses her understanding of trauma, as seen in those novels, to bring these horrors to British soil.
Noonday is written by a novelist adept at weaving historical detail into immensely readable stories. Barker seems to truly understand her characters and is particularly good at realising working-class voices, and the voices of women in wartime.
An eccentric medium also makes an appearance; her claims of being able to see and talk to the dead unnerve Paul. Her presence seems to be particularly craved in wartime, with many people having lost loved ones. Is she capitalising on grief or is she seriously mentally ill?
Wartime London is well-realised. The destruction and the rubble and constant threat of bombs give the novel a claustrophobic feel. Again, Barker brings the terror of the trenches into the city.
Issues of femininity and masculinity are made apparent. Paul and Kit seem unable to come to terms with the lack of power in their lives; they are not out fighting and they have no sense of control over their lives. Elinor, in contrast, has more power than she has had before; she is able to live by herself and work for herself.
Towards the end, Barker gives the well-worn love-triangle trope an interesting twist. Elinor is no passive pushover; she drives the story. The climax focuses on her needs.
Noonday is well worth anybody’s time. It is a compellingly well-researched story written by a master observer of human nature.