Jo Baker's 2017 novel "A Country Road, A Tree" revolved around Samuel Beckett's war years in occupied France, specifically his clandestine work for the Resistance in Paris and his desperate flight south after the Nazis got wise to his exploits. Baker's latest novel, "The Midnight News," sees the English author returning to World War II but this time trading a real-life figure for a fictitious creation, a young woman who struggles to keep calm and carry on during the Blitz.
It is 1940 and the war is rumbling on. For now, in London, 20-year-old Charlotte Richmond feels safe in her rented skylight room. She is also cushioned by wealth, her father being a baronet with connections and a country estate. She enjoys "gin and confidences" with her best friend Elena, and visits her glamorous "fairy godmother" Saskia -- better known as Lady Bowers -- who indulges her with pekoe tea, almond thins, and accounts of her recent purchases or her latest "girl."
But all is not well. Charlotte mourns her brother, missing in action in France. In her job at the Ministry of Information, she is slow, makes mistakes and needs to focus better. Saskia sheds light on her god-daughter's wandering mind and poor concentration when she tells her new flame that Charlotte "did a spell in the loony bin a while ago" and that her "capacities" are too strong: "She's forever being carried off by them, to all kinds of strange places." Charlotte knows that as long as she isn't a "nuisance" again, she will be fine.
But then disaster strikes: Elena is killed in an air raid. Shortly afterwards, a colleague from work suffers the same fate. Finally, Saskia dies. Charlotte is racked with grief but also plagued by suspicion, and becomes adamant that a "shadow man" is out there, killing those she holds dear and using the raids to cover up his foul deeds. Now he might be stalking her. Unable to share her fears with her family, she confides in Tom, a kindred spirit with troubles of his own. But as Charlotte makes inquiries into her friends' deaths, she finds herself battling self-destructive thoughts and the threat of a return trip to the loony bin.
Baker's thoroughly absorbing novel impresses on many levels. Like the war novels of Pat Barker and Sarah Waters, it brilliantly evokes the sustained horror and chaos of the times. As one character mildly puts it, "A bomb is a dreadful muddler of affairs." Just as Baker explored fact and fiction in her 2019 novel "The Body Lies," here she shrewdly examines madness and sanity, keeping her reader guessing as to whether the voices in Charlotte's head are real or imagined.
"The Midnight News" also has the potential to be a love story and a tale of hope. We follow Charlotte's progress keenly to discover if, after coming undone, she is able to put herself back together.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Wall Street Journal. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.