I picked this one up on the basis that Barker is a Booker Prize-winning author. I probably also had a subconscious disposition toward the book based on its description, as I’ve read a couple of other books with a similar setting not so long in the past – and enjoyed them very much.
It’s a slice-of-life, during the London Blitz.
Due to the war, artist Elinor is now volunteering as an ambulance driver. She’s not seeing much of her husband, Kit, these days, who’s busy with his own war-effort-related activities. Instead, she’s seeing a lot more of their long-time friend, Neville, who’s also involved in search-and-rescue, getting survivors out of bomb-raddled ruins. Neville’s carried a torch for Elinor for years, and in this time of death and chaos, the normal boundaries seem like they’re crumbling.
Meanwhile, Kit is weltering in guilt. He believes that a child is dead due to a decision he made. When a professional psychic says that she sees the ghost of a boy hovering around him, he’s inclined to give her words weight, skeptic though he might usually be.
Barker is undeniably a good writer. Her characters are complex and well-drawn. However, the book as a whole feels like it’s floundering as much as its characters are. While it eventually draws itself together to say a bit of something about relationships, grief, and social bonds, it’s very, very loose-knit and lacking tension on the way to getting there. For the bulk of the book, it doesn’t feel like it has a plot at all. In addition, some of the more dramatic events of the book either aren’t used particularly well, or feel irrelevant and out of place: an early mention of past incest feels like a non-sequitur, the ghost/psychic subplot is interesting, but almost buried, a rape that’s just a bit odd, in context, and a too-conveniently-timed death…
For those looking for fictional treatments of the situation and time period, i’d recommend Sarah Waters’ Night Watch, and Connie Willis’ Blackout.
Many thanks to Doubleday and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinion is solely my own.