31 March 2016

Noonday by Pat Barker

It's a bit of a risk to begin a series with the last book but with London during the Blitz as a backdrop I was excited to dive in and see if it would work.  The first few pages did feel a bit like walking into a house full of strangers but isn't that how we usually begin most stories?

Elinor's extended family have gathered at a cottage where her mother lies in an upstairs bedroom, eking out her last breaths.  Outside there are soldiers in the lane and toy soldiers on the carpet of another bedroom as Kenny, an evacuee, plays in his own little world while picking his cuticles and scabs.  He isn't the sort of boy people warm to easily so when he announces he's heading back to London, even it it means walking, Elinor's husband gives him a lift.  It's also the excuse Paul needs to leave the cloying atmosphere of death and family tension.

The first book in this series  Life Class then followed by Toby's Room centres around a romantic triangle involving Elinor, Paul, and Neville.  Within the first few pages I know which character is on the outside, still looking in.  Neville has eventually gone on to marry and have a child but things didn't worked out.  It has been awhile since he has seen his daughter as she's living with her mother in America.  World War II has brought the three friends, together since art school, close again as members of the volunteer service.

Any shortfall in the back story of these characters is filled by the descriptions of Bloomsbury.  My home away from home while in London comes to life with its flats on Gower Street (rooftop ones at that), Russell Square, the British Museum, a volunteer depot on Tottenham Court Road, and strolls along Guildford Street.  Persephone Books wasn't even a twinkle then but I couldn't help visualizing a turn onto Lamb's Conduit Street.

My favourite parts of the book were when Elinor, an artist whose work hangs in the Tate, was narrating the story.  Back in London after the death of her mother, she decides to surprise her husband at his studio and sees him on the doorstep with a woman.  Their body language leaves no doubt as to an affair.  She has overlooked his roving eye in the past but as she's matured Elinor has become more independent.  This is where the rooftop flat on Gower Street comes in - the rent is cheap because who wants to be that close to the direct hit of a bomb?  Elinor is also a voice for other women artists (Laura Knight gets a mention) who are frustrated with being paid only for their commissions rather than a salary as their male counterparts are.  The offer of a job on the War Artists Advisory Committee will hopefully allow Elinor some sort of leverage.

Descriptions of nightly bombing raids are vivid as are the images of bodies torn apart and people, still in a state of shock, searching for loved ones.  In particular, it's the children lying like rag dolls on the pavement that leave the most lasting memories.  At one point Kit Neville remembers his daughter...

'...there was the gap, the all-important gap, the visit from the tooth fairy, Anne smiling, baring her teeth.  And for a long time afterwards, he'd noticed her running her tongue along the edge of the grown-up tooth, which was uneven, not smooth as adult teeth are after years of biting and grinding.  That little girl, last night - Livvy, was it?  Her two precious grown-up teeth would never be worn smooth.'

The almost daily scenes of devastation, long hours on very little sleep coupled with isolation and fueled by alcohol is probably not the best foundation for turning a friendship into something more.  Some may disagree.  But in Neville's case a feeling of desperation that leads to a violent act changes the bond between friends forever with a tragic result.

Noonday
definitely works as a stand-alone novel.  But who wouldn't want to go back to the beginning?...to find out how this trilogy of characters came to mean so much to one another, for better or worse.




Corporal J.D.M. Pearson, GC, WAAF by Laura Knight (1940)
(first woman to receive the George Cross)

  

8 comments:

  1. I know I enjoyed Life Class but it has rather faded from my memory;think I'd have to go back to the beginning and start again. Wish I could rejuvenate my brain!

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    1. But on the flip side, think of all the wonderful books you loved in the past that you could enjoy as if for the first time! Joking aside, I've been thinking a lot lately about revisiting some of the books I read more than five years ago and digging a bit deeper.

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  2. This trilogy is going right on my list. When I was reading Mrs. Dalloway, I so wanted to find a map of London so I could trace her steps! I think I'd want to do that again when I read this. (I've wandered through Bloomsbury once in person, but I need to get my bearings again.)

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    1. Reading some of George Gissing's novels are fun that way too. He liked to spend time at the British Museum so the streets nearby crop up a fair bit. The B&B I stay at stocks a nice street map that's just a bit larger than a place mat. I've brought it out a couple of times to trace walks from books with my finger..and then wish it were in person. You'll have to plan another trip, Audrey!

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  3. I do so want to read this series -- I have a pile of WWI books, fiction and non-fiction, and I've added this one to the list. I am leery of starting a series at the end, though. Is there such a thing as reader's OCD?

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    1. Reader's OCD? Definitely...Thomas from Hogglestock comes to mind!
      My much-loved treasure trove of books is full of stories set in London. I'd love to explore some French literature but am a teensy bit afraid of then buying up as many books in translation and then needing an engineer's survey for the house.

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  4. I love the sound of this series. Thanks so much for your review. I will be getting one or more of these! Love the Bloomsbury associations. With each trip to London I am getting to know this neighborhood better.

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    1. Art and England...two of your favourite things, Sunday! London Walks offer a literary tour around Bloomsbury if you have an evening to fill...and you can bear another two hours of walking after a long day.

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