MOTHER is dying. That’s all that matters to Elinor Brooke and her husband Paul: that her mother is lingering on her deathbed at her sister’s house in the country.
There’s a heatwave, and that’s been going on too long too. Paul spends his time trying to make a strange boy who has come to live with them feel at home. Elinor can’t wait to get back to painting in London but she knows that her mother will only loosen her grip on life when she sees her grandson Alex again. And now here he is, back from the war, and wounded.
Anyone who has read Life Class and Toby’s Room will already have met Elinor and Paul and realise that this is the conclusion to Pat Barker’s latest trilogy. She is acclaimed for her fiction set – as those two books were – in and around the First World War. In the speech she gave after winning the Booker for The Ghost Road 20 years ago, she explained why this period matters so much to her: the Somme, she said, like the Holocaust, reveals things about human nature that we cannot come to terms with and cannot forget. “It can never,” she said, “become the past.”
You don’t have to turn many pages in Noonday before you realise that she is writing, for the first time, about the Second World War. Not just that, but she dares to begin in the middle of that many-storied long, hot English summer of 1940. No-one worries about such a pivotal and dramatic time and place “becoming the past”. The first question Barker has to answer is whether she can transform it into a credible present.
But she already has. The strange boy living in Elinor’s sister’s house is Kenny, an evacuee from London’s East End. Alex the returning soldier is, in her mother’s addled mind, her son Toby, Elinor’s brother, who died in the First World War. Elinor is still drawing, just as she was in Life Class, when we were first introduced to her, Paul and the would-be futurist Kit Neville – all friends at the Slade in 1914 – and her artist’s eye is one of the joys of the book (“Cabbages are shocking if you get them right,” she notes, “especially those thick-veined outer leaves: positively scrotal”). She has aged a bit since then: although by the end of the novel she will be the anguished apex of a bohemian love triangle, to Alex she is on the verge of middle-aged maiden auntish invisibility.
This is the advantage of entering new territory at the end of a trilogy: the characters are already so well defined that the novelist can concentrate on scouring off the patina of myth and showing the raw edge of the then-present. Barker’s trio are, however, so individuated that telling their back-story is sometimes like being stuck on a bus going round a housing estate. Even less convincing is her introduction of an overweight medium, who doesn’t fit in with the emotional precision of the rest of the novel.
Yet when it works, which is most of the time, Barker’s concentration on character pays dividends. Through her trio’s painterly eyes we see the London of the Blitz almost as clearly as in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat Of The Day, and I can think of no greater praise. It has changed such a lot, this city where property was once so cheap on account of the risk of bombing; where residents would wait for time-bombs to be defused on roped-off streets, or gather to look at notice boards of new addresses at the end of streets that no longer existed. Not the least of Barker’s achievements is to have brought Blitz London back to fiery life, but the fact that she has done so through characters who catch echoes of their own past lives as art students there at the start of a still earlier war gives her novel an even greater resonance. ■
Pat Barker appears at the Edinburgh International Book Festival today at 5pm