Noonday is the time when, after a night of German air raids, Londoners climb through the wreckage, mechanically searching for survivors. Pat Barker’s latest novel offers us little sense of Churchill’s spunk, little feeling that military resistance can prevail against the Third Reich; instead, we see a demoralized England during the Blitz, a vivid but chilly glimpse of life in the face of imminent invasion.

As in earlier works, Barker builds her grim descriptions around the lives of creative people. Paul Tarrant, Elinor Brooke and Kit Neville are all middle-aged artists and all a bit irrelevant in the midst of the war. Tarrant and Neville were acclaimed “war artists” after the Great War. Now they wait in hope for commissions to paint propaganda art, as does Brooke, Tarrant’s wife. In the evenings Brooke and Neville drive ambulances; Tarrant walks the streets as a night warden. They act bravely and selflessly, but they are numbed-out fragments of people.

“Noonday” is a book rich in ghosts — and in ghostly longings that seem to cut Barker’s characters off from any sort of emotional immediacy. Battlefield death, suicide and estrangement fill the minds of her Londoners, none of whom seems able to inhabit the present for long.

Perhaps the richest scene in the novel comes when Paul and Elinor travel to the Brooke family home in the country to visit her dying mother. It’s a fraught scene, full of sibling tension and long-standing irritations and problems with servants. During a picnic on the lawn with gooseberry tarts and noisy wasps, the family notices the buzzing has changed. They look up to see a huge formation of German bombers “coming towards them, [German] fighter planes circling around them like gnats.” Only anxiety is able to recall people to the present.

As a parallel to the more well-bred characters, Barker introduces Bertha Mason, a popular medium (with a Brontë-esque name). Kit, Paul and Elinor continually think of departed family members; in an even more disabling way, Mason cannot control the voices speaking through her, some of which abuse and threaten her. Her “gift” — or, more accurately, her illness — is a concentrated form of the national sense of loss.

“Noonday” does a magnificent job of bringing to life the rain of death London experienced in 1940. We see the burst water mains, sheared off buildings, evacuated children. During his rounds, Tarrant observes “a broken shopwindow with mannequins inside, all prudishly shrouded in brown paper, one leaning out into the street, arm and wrist elegantly posed, smirking at devastation.”

Yet for all the evocative prose, Barker does extremely little to involve her readers in the emotional lives of her characters in what is essentially a character-driven novel. The artists only occasionally emerge from their crippling memories, and Barker boxes herself in in such a way that her ending seems arbitrary.

 

Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.

Noonday
By: Pat Barker.
Publisher: Doubleday, 307 pages, $27.95.