The “Progress of Ruins”: Loss and Regeneration in Pat Barker’s Noonday

St Paul's etc. 26052016_6 - Version 4Barker, Pat. Noonday. Toronto: Hamish Hamilton-Penguin Canada, 2016.

If you’ve read Pat Barker’s Life Class and Toby’s Room, you will meet some of the characters from that novel again in Noonday. If you’ve not read the preceding two novels, then Noonday stands on its own as an examination of people facing crises. Set in 1940, Noonday takes us to the London of the Blitz, where every day means the possibility of loss.

The novel begins with Elinor and her husband Paul in the country where the family has St Paul's etc. 26052016_6 - Version 2gathered to await the death of Elinor’s mother. Adding to the family’s difficulties is the presence of a young evacuee, Kenny, who longs for the promised visit from his mother that never comes. In the long watches of the nights as they wait for Mrs. Brooke’s death, Elinor and Paul remember their pasts and other deaths. Elinor remarks to her nephew Alex that “we’re all same people we’ve always been,” and he replies “Oh, I don’t know about that”(17). Possibly the question of whether or not we do remain the same as time passes lies at the heart of this novel. What is true and what isn’t? What is known by us and about us? To what extent are we haunted by the past?

St Paul's etc. 26052016_6 - Version 4Paul, Elinor, and Mrs. Brooke are certainly haunted by the past, and so too is Alex, the nephew whose resemblance to Elinor’s brother, the long dead Toby, who died in the first world war, is a burden he must bear. Memories of the first world war and of times before that war when Elinor Brooke, Paul Tarrant, and Kit Neville were all art students together at the Slade are never far from the minds of Elinor, Paul, and Kit who has returned to London from America. In many ways, Noonday completes the story of the relationship among these three artists, but, as I said, the earlier books are not essential background to the issues raised in Noonday.

A character who appears only in Noonday is Mrs. Mason the sometimes fake medium who has her own chilling backstory of memories. One of Barker’s strengths in this novel is her St Paul's etc. 26052016_6 - Version 2creation of her minor characters. They, too, are given enough of a background and are sufficiently rounded to engage our interest and empathy. Even if their function in the novel is but to serve the requirements of plot or to throw the other characters’ dilemmas into relief, they emerge as individuals about whom we can care in a setting that is chillingly realistic. Barker’s evocation of London in the blitz is intense, almost cinematic in its rendering of the carnage wrought by the bombs and of the mind-numbing exhaustion of the firefighters, ambulance drivers, and air-raid wardens who night after sleepless night struggle to save lives and their city. She captures the gruelling tedium of it all, the banal ordinariness of horror.

St Paul's etc. 26052016_6 - Version 4It’s a horror that the establishment is at some pains to hide. Eleanor, commissioned by Kenneth Clark to be one of the few women war artists is limited in her commission, not only by being on a different pay scale from the male war artists but in her subject matter. She notes in her diary: “Suitable subjects. Children but only in safe areas well away from the raids; land girls, bums not specified; women in the forces, though obviously not in any aggressive capacity; definitely no guns, factories etc.” (206). Her work is rejected for being insufficiently optimistic.

As she does in the previous novels, Barker draws attention to the way that art records and fixes moment in time, capturing a particular moment or a particular response, because art always mediates between the gaze of the viewer and the gaze of the artist. How true is what St Paul's etc. 26052016_6 - Version 2the painter shows? Even as it fixes, art interprets.

Unsurprisingly, for Elinor, Paul, and Kit, this second war brings their memories of the first war and of their younger selves closer, allowing them the possibility of reconsideration, reconfiguration. But this war, too, brings them new pain, loss, and the prospect not only of new beginnings but of total destruction. The novel ends—and here I have difficulty in finding quite le mot juste, but I might say—hopefully, if not optimistically; certainly, in terms of its structure, themes, and the expectations Barker sets up, satisfactorily.

St Paul's etc. 26052016_6 - Version 4Much of the pleasure in reading this novel comes in one’s sense of the author’s control of her craft and in her compassionate representation of the way men and women live and love.

St Paul's etc. 26052016_6 - Version 2

If you want to look at some work by a woman war artist, check out the work of Dame Laura Knight She did paint girls in factories. You might be interested in the following link: http://www.damelauraknight.com/tag/wartime/. You may remember I mentioned her work in a post in November 2013.

 

 

 

 

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