Noonday, the final novel in Pat Barker’s Life Class trilogy, will be published on August 27th. Many thanks to the publisher for sending me an advance copy to review.
The Life Class trilogy focuses on three artists – Elinor Brooke, Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville – who we first meet as students at the Slade School of Art. The first two novels – Life Class and Toby’s Room – chart the trio’s experiences of the First World War. Barker is, of course, a renowned chronicler of this conflict and is best known for the harrowing, haunting and peerless Regeneration trilogy.
Few books rival the power and impact of the Regeneration trilogy, and Life Class and Toby’s Room are no different. However, it is more useful to view them as companion pieces to Barker’s masterpiece, rather than inferior successors. These two novels mine the same territory as Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road, and do so fascinatingly. The territory I’m referring to is, of course, that of the horrors of trench warfare, but also issues of gender (particularly masculinity and its relationship to conflict), class and identity. These books also consider the role of art in wartime and are well worth reading.
It is worth pointing out, though, that Noonday would function just as well as a standalone than as the culmination of a trilogy. Indeed, its main ‘draw’ is not that it concludes a novel cycle but that, for the first time, this gifted chronicler of the First World War turns her hand to the second.
For me, Barker’s skill as a writer of historical fiction is characterised by two qualities. Firstly, she has a gift for defamiliarising well-worn ground: for instance, there are plenty of novels about the First World War, but none like the Regeneration trilogy. I am going to stick my neck out a bit (a risk because my knowledge of this area is by no means exhaustive) and say that she does the same with the Second World War in Noonday.
Most homefront novels I have read are somewhat romanticised: they focus on the pluckiness of the Brits during the bombing raids, on Blitz spirit, the togetherness of communities and on doomed romance. I have never read one quite like Noonday, which brings home the horror of the air raids and stresses the imminence of death in a vivid and harrowing way. In this novel, both Elinor and Kit are working as ambulance drivers, whilst Paul is an Air Raid Warden. Barker certainly pulls no punches when describing the scenes all three encounter on a regular basis. Her descriptive powers ensure that these scenes are chilling and immediate.
And this brings me on to the second quality that defines Barker’s writing for me: she writes historical fiction that never feels like historical fiction. In her work, it always feels as if we are watching people’s realities unfolding; we are witnessing the characters’ present. This is what lends a gripping sense of immediacy to Noonday: some scenes are almost heart-stoppingly tense.
This trilogy got off to a bit of a wobbly start with Life Class: the three central characters were difficult to like and, consequently, hard to care about. I thought that changed in Toby’s Room and, in Noonday in particular, Elinor, Kit and Paul seem much more developed and easier to invest in. This is a good thing as the novel also touches upon more personal themes such as friendship, rivalry, marriage and the loss of a parent. Barker’s ear for dialogue is also in evidence here, making the characters and the action seem that much more vivid. There is also some very interesting – and hackle-raising – material on the contrasting status of male and female war artists.
I do have one niggle regarding a subplot involving a medium. The lady in question, one Bertha Mason, is a fascinating character, especially since she seems to be both the genuine article and a fraud all at once. However, I was a bit befuddled as to how her story complemented the main plot, particularly as she departed the action a bit abruptly. It seemed to be that her presence commented on issues surrounding death, loss and making peace with the past but this is a wild guess: I can’t quite seem to work it out. This may well be me being a bit thick, but it never seemed clear how Bertha’s story commented on the novel’s main themes. There seems to be a lack of clarity here.
Overall, though, this is a gripping and unusual take on the Second World War. The action is every bit as harrowing, vividly rendered and skilfully portrayed as I expected as an admirer of the Regeneration trilogy. Definitely worth adding to your TBRs come Thursday.