After a midtrilogy slump with Toby’s Room (2012), Barker returns to form in the rueful, cautiously hopeful conclusion to a story that began in pre–World War I London and concludes with its three protagonists enduring the Blitz.
Ambitious young students when their complex bonds were forged at the Slade School of Fine Art in Life Class (2008), Elinor Brooke, Kit Neville, and Paul Tarrant are now middle-aged painters contending with ingrained sexism (Elinor), a declining reputation (Neville), and the knowledge that his best-known, if not necessarily his best, work is behind him (Paul). World War I brought disfiguring injuries to Kit and drew together Elinor and Paul as lovers; now all three are on the homefront, dealing with the carnage produced by German planes’ near-nightly bombings. Barker searingly re-creates a wartime landscape in which the apocalyptic has become routine: people stoically huddle overnight in Tube stations and barely notice the rubble they walk past on the daytime streets; rescue workers hunt for survivors inside devastated buildings that may collapse at any moment. But this is not a rah-rah Britain’s Greatest Generation novel; Barker unsentimentally depicts Kit maneuvering for advantage as Paul and Elinor’s marriage falters. Her mother’s death stirs unwelcome memories of Elinor’s charged relationship with her brother Toby; Paul, unsettled by thoughts of his own long-dead, mentally ill mother, falls into bed with a fellow air-raid warden. “Why do men think that makes it better?” Elinor snorts when he offers the time-honored excuse that the affair wasn’t important. “It makes it worse.” Is her one-night stand with Kit payback or a long overdue reckoning with their past? It might be both; Barker is as subtle and tough-minded here about human nature as in all her work. Yet the closing pages suggest the possibility of new beginnings even as they acknowledge the permanence of old wounds.
Lacks the epic sweep of her Booker Prize–winning Regeneration trilogy but nonetheless, a strong example of this gifted British writer’s intelligent, uncompromising way with fiction.