Noonday seems just a bit smaller than Pat Barker at her best, however readable and indeed enthralling, and however much its stakes are matters of life and death — smaller than when art and history were on the table as well.
Some of [Barker's] language becomes bruise-purple; readers might not want to hear quite so much sentiment along the lines of 'Nightmares crawled across each other like copulating toads.' It's no mean feat to match the horror of a historical experience with horrific language and not go over the top into fright-show territory. Often enough, Pat Barker walks this line with sensory-thick language; its sweep makes us truly appreciate life and death in a decimated landscape...
Barker is known as a war writer, but she might be better understood as an observer of institutions: hospitals, prisons, schools. She is at her best when she can organize her story within such an institution, and has a Rivers or a Tonks to guide its telling—when she puts us in the hands of professionals. In Noonday, unfortunately, nobody has been put in charge... All sorts of rich and terrible details are caught up in the sweeping panorama that Barker produces—horses galloping away from an explosion, their manes and tails on fire; a dog hiding behind a bed with a dead couple—but there is nothing that, in Elinor’s words, we don’t know how to look at.
Ms. Barker set the bar so high with her profoundly imagined Regeneration trilogy that the more recent novels can feel a bit slick by comparison. That still leaves them room to be historical fiction of a high order.
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 ... [Barker] 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 ... To the extent that the job of fiction, and especially historical fiction, is transportation, Noonday’s is a job well done.
Yet for all the evocative prose, Barker does extremely little to involve her readers in the emotional lives of her characters in what is essentially a character-driven novel. The artists only occasionally emerge from their crippling memories, and Barker boxes herself in in such a way that her ending seems arbitrary.
...the characters’ emotions feel buried beneath the wreckage, their life force a casualty of war. Alas, the same might be said of Noonday. The transition from Toby’s Room to Noonday feels rough, and Barker’s use of multiple points of view further muddles matters. The novel is an ambitious conclusion to the trilogy but is lacking as a stand-alone read.
What makes Ms. Barker’s writing compelling, besides its artlessness and precision, is her unsentimental, almost detached eye. She weaves narrative and reportage so skillfully, you don’t realize how much empathy you’re suffering; you’re too busy being involved in what’s happening. She puts you there without making it overly visceral ... This is another fine work by a great writer.