Barker's talent to fore in war and art trilogy

I have been a fan of English author Pat Barker since reading her haunting World War 1 Regeneration trilogy, the first of which was made into an equally impressive film.

Noonday completes her second war fiction trilogy (begun with Life Class and Toby's Room), which has traced the lives of Elinor Brooke, Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville, former students at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, from the outbreak of WW1.

In the final instalment, Barker moves the action to World War 2, new territory for her.

This time the war is at home.

The Blitz is in full swing and London is burning.

Elinor and Paul are in the thick of it, working through the long and terrifying nights, she as an ambulance driver and he as an air raid warden.

The fear and reality of death is ever-present, and loss and grief inform the novel.

Many of the characters are ghosts of their former selves, haunted by the memory of others, and by their lost youth, lost hopes and dreams.

Elinor's mother lies dying in her other daughter's farmhouse in a village outside the capital.

She is surrounded by family, whose hostilities are never far from the surface.

Elinor is still haunted by her beloved brother Toby, killed in WW1, whose ''voracious ghost'' looks down on them in paintings, and with whom she shared an unmentionable secret.

Elinor and Paul's marriage is dying; the enforced separation while Elinor awaits her mother's death only helps hasten its demise.

Paul becomes preoccupied with a young boy Kenny, a sad, lonely and unwanted evacuee, whose fate Paul feels responsible for.

He is also haunted by the fate of his own desperately ill mother, years before. Kit's marriage has disintegrated, he has lost access to his daughter, and becomes traumatised by the death of a girl his daughter's age.

He is tormented by his feelings for Elinor, and although he is a feared art critic - secondary to his job at the Ministry of Information - he is embittered by his lack of success as an artist, compared with Elinor and Paul, who have enjoyed success and are commissioned as war artists.

The personal losses are mirrored in the destruction of the city of London.

The bodies of the dead or dying unceremoniously litter the streets or are entombed in bomb-blasted buildings.

Recognisable landmarks are reduced to rubble. There is no sense of permanence.

With a world, city and relationships unravelling, the boundaries become increasingly blurred: between the two wars, madness and sanity, right and wrong, art and reality, life and death.

It is in this context that the strange character of Bertha Mason can be viewed.

The namesake of ''the madwoman in the attic'' (Jane Eyre), she is a psychic medium, living on the fringes and in trouble with the authorities for giving seances. She serves to bridge the gap between the living and the dead, exemplifies the ''surreal'' experience of London during wartime, and her personal loss is also affecting.

While the Regeneration books are hard to match - by any writer - I nonetheless enjoyed Barker's latest trilogy.

The novels are easy to read, but her writing is deceptively simple, offering as it does much emotional depth, psychological insight and historical detail. Highly recommended.

Helen Speirs is ODT books editor.

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