The Comfort of War: Pat Barker’s World War II Trilogy
By Dehn GilmoreMay 13, 2016
Noonday by Pat Barker
Familiarity may not always breed contempt — it certainly doesn’t here, where there are too many gripping elements — but it may take the edge off of admiration. The first 70 pages of Noonday raise the question of whether we are so saturated by written and filmic fictions that play to our fascination with World War II that chroniclers are up against an almost impossible task in trying both to work within the bounds of realism and to offer any sense of novelty. When they fail, when war comes to seem comforting or even pleasing instead of shattering, appalling, or bizarre, a species of ethical difficulty arises. One solution is to play with our expectations by tweaking the form of the novel. In Atonement (2001), Ian McEwan blurs the line between the fictional and the real through a commitment to the unreliable narrator. In Life After Life (2013), Kate Atkinson makes a similar move in pushing her counterfactual narrative to its absolute limits, killing the main character again and again.
Barker’s solution in Noonday is different. First, Barker begins by throwing numerous taboo subjects at the reader up front, diluting any sense of tidy nostalgia for the past. We get a quick parade of incest, adultery, miscarriage, insanity, and alcoholism at the outset — some of these elements tidily recap events from the trilogy’s first two books. Next, Barker introduces a tricky character, a medium by the portentous name of Bertha Mason, who acts as a quasi-mystical force for steering people’s lives onto changed paths. Bertha frays the realism of the book (and not always to the good; more on this shortly).
Perhaps most importantly, by setting the first two books of Noonday’s trilogy during and immediately after World War I and then Noonday later, Barker raises interesting questions about the similarities between wars — these wars in particular, but implicitly all wars. She also offers a powerful reflection on the long-term devastation wars wreak — a remarkable feature in a novel studded with scenes of sudden, terrible, immediate aftermath. Those who read all three novels will have followed Elinor, Paul, and Kit from art school at the Slade through the marshes of Ypres and then into the Blitz of the early ’40s. Those who only read Noonday — and it does work as a stand-alone novel — will still catch plenty of flashbacks to earlier days and early entanglements, for the novel’s central themes are the workings of memory and the pervasiveness of the past in the present. Elinor, now working as an ambulance driver and war artist, is still torn up about her brother Toby’s death in the Great War, and she bears Kit ill will for his part in the loss. Kit, now a powerful art critic and a lonely man, is possibly still in love with Elinor and wracked by memories of youthful lust. Paul has more and more flashbacks to the battlefield and becomes increasingly untethered as a result, drifting away from Elinor and drifting through the streets as a blackout warden-cum-flâneur. “And always for Paul there were memories of other tunnels” we are told at one point, as he makes his way through underground shelters: “Increasingly the two worlds — France, then; London, now — met and merged.” Many equivalent passages tend to tilt, as this one does, from showing into telling, but ultimately the novel’s territory is one of eruptions and echoes. Its charting of the way in which a new conflict can blow the scars off of old wounds, “pic[k] the scab off previous losses,” opens the way for a psychological study not wholly different from the one Barker takes on in Regeneration, in which the poet Siegfried Sassoon, recovering from the traumas of trench warfare, faces a domestic landscape pathologically overlaid with memories of the front. In Noonday, however, the temporal separation between places “merged” happens to be longer, and the domestic landscape has actually become a war zone.
Where memory, nostalgic longing, and eerie physical echoes — of one underground tunnel and another, say — will not do enough to open a “porous” conduit between the past and the present, Barker trots (or rather, shuffles) Bertha Mason onto the scene. Mason is named after the madwoman in Jane Eyre’s attic for no clear or obvious reason, unless it is perhaps, for the too obvious reason that she hears voices and lives in an attic. She appears first to Paul, for whom she becomes a medium ex machina, thrusting him out of established grooves by making him feel he is operating “out of time.” She is a weird and larger-than-life figure — Barker spends quite a bit of time cataloging her many rolls of flesh — and one can’t help but compare her to Hilary Mantel’s more successful, and physically very similar, portrait of medium Alison Hart in Beyond Black (2005). However, once Bertha is on the scene and has sent Paul reeling off, Barker does not seem to know entirely what to do with her. Parts of her story intersect with Noonday’s theme of bad or misbegotten mothers, and a sham show of which she is part occasions some thoughts on the manipulation of grief. Yet although Paul will come think of her as “the Witch of Endor” because of her ability to see the dead, she never completes her mythic arc, and she is shuffled off again before the last third of the book, a bold but perhaps not entirely successful experiment in weirding up realism as war makes strange daily life.
Once Barker is fully launched into her chronicle of the devastating impact of the Blitz on London, of course, she no longer really needs Bertha for the production of awe or eerie feelings, and this may be part of why the character disappears. Indeed, in the Blitz sections of the novel, Barker is at the height of her historicist powers, and she summons one haunting image after the next, whether of fleeing horses “galloping […] out of the orange-streaked darkness, their manes and tails on fire,” or houses seen after bombings:
On the first floor, a green brocade armchair cocked one elegant cabriole leg over the abyss. There was a bathroom with a washbasin and toilet, looking somehow vulnerable, touching even, like a fleeting, accidental glimpse of somebody’s backside. You wanted to cover it up, restore its dignity, but there was no way of doing that.
In scenes of after-the-fact surveillance, as here, with the look at the bathroom, she is very good at finding telling and suggestive details — that vulnerable toilet, that elegant leg just over the abyss.
In scenes where Elinor and Paul are on the job, picking up bodies or pulling people out of cramped, bombed-out quarters, Barker is excellent at creating suspense and claustrophobia, and she is skilled too at evoking the full range of ways the body can break and go wrong. The descriptions in these scenes are so strong that they can sometimes make the quieter moments feel too quiet, even flat. Elinor reflects early on that she has been thinking all day in “vague, trite little phrases, trying to nudge herself into feeling the appropriate emotions and never quite succeeding,” and she’s not necessarily being purely self-deprecating; sections later in the novel where her perspective is rendered in diary form, rather than in third-person narration, evoke one of the key sources historians (and novelists) can turn to for their insight into the past, but they do not evoke as much feeling as they might. On the other hand, as Paul’s trajectory in particular makes clear, people living through war, and war on the home front especially, can feel unreal to themselves in the intervals between squalls of violence, or flat to themselves when they compare themselves to larger sweeps of events. On these grounds, Barker may get something of a pass.
Upon finishing Noonday, and finishing the trilogy, one has not really heard the dead speak. One has not necessarily learned or felt anything new about World War II or war full stop. But the reader has been in another time, for a time, and vividly. To the extent that the job of fiction, and especially historical fiction, is transportation, Noonday’s is a job well done.
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