Saturday, October 29, 2016

Noonday by Pat Barker

Historical novelist Pat Barker is known for the Regeneration Trilogy, an incisive portrayal of the social and political history of World War I. It won the Booker and was made into a movie in 1997.

Noonday is the third of a trilogy that ends during World War II. Once more Barker unpacks the moment-by-moment feelings of the era. Reluctant to separate, as if "the mere fact of being known, recognized, addressed by name could protect... from the random destruction of bombs," Londoners use "So long," since "nobody these days risked saying 'Goodbye.'"

A more subtle effect is seen through the images of people in parks and squares "basking in the doorways and windows, raising their eyes to the light, storing it up against the blackout."

Heartrendingly, victims call out to rescue workers, repeating the names of loved ones so recently alive beside them, as an ambulance driver broods on the endless stream of death, loss and tragedy. "On and on it went. Unbearable, you'd have said, except they all bore it."

Yet, along with the All Clear, "the dawn wind, tainted by the smell of high explosive," brings "the assurance that they were still alive." Life during the blitz has an unreal quality. Even Paul, who was wounded in WWI, lives as if he were safe beneath the constant bombardment. Only when his house takes a direct hit does all the "ungrounded confidence" he had before swirl away "like dirty water down a plughole" leaving him to face "the certainty of his own death."

Many children have been sent away from their London homes to places of greater safety. Adults who have somewhere to go also flee the bombs. In contrast, Paul sits outside a pub with a fellow rescue worker having a drink in the sunshine while they share "the smugness of the stayers-on." Paul and Elinor are bombed out twice in one week, and still they carry on with their work, their art, their quarreling and rivalries, both artistic and sexual.

The book reads more a series of connected vignettes than a cohesive story. This structure reflects the random feeling of the times. Kenny is assumed to be dead after the school collapses. Later he turns up in the most unexpected place. Elinor's sister Rachel comes into view when their mother dies after a long illness, but is not seen again. Her husband Tim is only briefly glimpsed.

Mrs. Mason, a painfully obese woman visited by ghosts, ekes out a living giving seances, pursued by an official who vows to stop her "taking advantage" of the bereaved. Caught in a building collapse, she finds herself in hospital, on the verge of joining the legions of spirits. Her visions concern the last war, still recent. The devil is less the Prince of Darkness than "a commercial traveler down on his luck."  He resembles "the men you used to see after the last war, selling silk stockings door to door, twitching that much they could hardly count out the change."

The residents of London are constantly barraged not only by bombs, but by dirt, plaster dust, smoke and endless exhaustion. As the war wears on, people are so tired that more of them risk everything "for the comfort and (spurious) safety of their own beds."

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