In Noonday, Barker switches scenes from the tranquil, disheartened countryside, to war-torn London and the constraints of the blackout, to the changing progress of the War as the years and months go by. While in London, Elinor Brooke works as an ambulance driver in the same Tottenham Court Road Depot as her old friend, Kit Neville. Elinor’s husband, Paul Tarrant, works as an air raid warden, dealing nightly with the bombing raids, the incendiaries that drift down “like huge yellow peonies.” All three are connected by the Slade School of Art and the ghost of Elinor’s handsome brother, Toby, who died in the Great War. When Toby was alive, his presence
was the only thing that made Elinor’s weekends with the rest of the family bearable.
Beginning at the Brooke family home in Kent, Barker charts Elinor’s journey as she reconnects with her sister, Rachel, her brother-in-law, Tim, and her mother who, as the novel opens, is lying upstairs dying but still somehow clinging to life. From the searchlights over the church at night
and the blacked-out houses to the never ending “pop-pop” of guns on the marches
and the village gossip that Elinor “wasn’t really married to Paul at all,” Elinor ruminates on how disproportionately the burden of their mother’s illness has fallen onto Rachel and how the responsibilitly for Kenny, their young evacuee, has been passed onto her.
As grief hangs over the house “like a pall of black smoke that won’t go away,” Elinor remains steadfast in her refusal to feel any guilt at how little she’s helped her sister. These early sections of the novel show Elinor’s gradual acceptance and understanding of an intolerable, almost heart-breaking situation. Elinor is plagued by confusing dreams: of Paul working late in his studio in London, and her mother turning toward her
with a gaze that is sharp and alert, even slightly malicious (“a glimpse of the woman she’d once been”).
The complexities of Elinor’s ensuing dilemma and Paul’s place in it gradually become clear.
Paul eventually arrives from London, determined to put Kenny out of his obvious misery. Sympathetic to Kenny’s separation from his mother, Paul travels with him to London on the hunt for
her. As Paul--and later Elinor and Kit--draw closer to their London home, long-forgotten memories surface
that irrevocably draw them to each other and into a past filled with a permanent etching of loss--and also into a present existence where they must learn to face danger together.
From the oily black smoke and charred smoldering ruins to the bodies beside the roads
(“lifeless and sodden heaps of rags”) and the walls of flames surrounding such brave souls, Barker's three protagonists embark on a sort of confession, a setting straight of their whole lives. While Kit remains jealous that Paul’s reputation as a painter is higher than his own, Paul spends much of his time feeling as though he’s “outside time.” As he works to rescue people from London’s rubble, Paul is often hijacked by their bewilderment, the death that he sees before him, and the pain of such truncated lives. For Elinor, all these memories of Paul and Kit suddenly bob to the surface, sharpening her sense of betrayal.
While not a particularly uplifting read, Barker’s novel is always gorgeous, showcasing London’s survival throughout these extraordinarily difficult times. The story is a testament to those courageous men and women who saved lives while refusing to believe in the real possibility of a German invasion. Barker is at her best describing this historical setting in relation to her characters’ profound, exhausting battle for survival. As Neville suddenly becomes indifferent to his own safety, everything that Paul says feeds Neville’s rage “just as everything feeds the London fires.” Left alone in London, Paul feels increasingly restless.
He finds it impossible to stay indoors, as does Elinor, who sees the darkness turning London into “a palimpsest,” a sense that on these nights, long-buried bones are reworking their way to the surface.
In spite of Paul’s infidelity, Kit leaves a lasting impression, one that Elinor must acknowledge if she is going to save her marriage. With her beautiful, subtle prose, Barker’s decision to focus on both the living and the dead gives her story
great power. Faced with the billowing clouds of black smoke, stark against “a
furnace red night,” the landscape of war becomes another catalyst in Elinor, Paul, and Kit’s seemingly endless fight to survive and to love.