Sunday, April 20, 2008

Life Class

Life Class, Pat Barker’s first novel since 2004, begins on the eve of England’s entry into World War I, a time period Barker knows well and one she covered admirably in her prize winning WWI trilogy published between 1990 and 1995 (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and Ghost Road). Naturally, mainstream critics have compared Life Class to the earlier books but they have unfortunately come to the conclusion that it is inferior to that trio. Though that might be the case, readers should not be put off by that opinion because Life Class still has much to offer.

Barker’s story begins at the Slade School, a prestigious London art school being attended by Paul Tarrant and Elinor Brooke, aspiring artists hoping to eventually make their mark in the London art world. Tarrant, who can barely afford to keep himself at the school, has come to the realization that he may be in over his head and is close to quitting the school. Elinor Brooke, on the other hand, is doing quite well in her classes and is determined to reach her goal of becoming a successful artist. Tarrant is attracted to Elinor but finds that he cannot really compete for her affections with Kit Neville, an accomplished young artist who has already established a minor reputation in the city.

Barker explores the rather insulated little world of the Slade School whose students think about little other than art, and she exposes the highly competitive nature of most of its students, a competitiveness they bring even to their personal relationships. Paul Tarrant finds himself immensely attracted to Teresa Halliday, an artist’s model introduced to him by Elinor, and begins a shaky affair with her despite the ever present threat that her estranged husband may be spying on the couple. Kit Neville, in the meantime, is trying to bully Elinor into marrying him, something she bluntly tells him she has no intention of ever doing.

But even those attending the Slade School and living in the world they have created for themselves cannot ignore what is happening in the real world. World War I is upon them and every able-bodied man and, to a certain degree, every woman is expected to play a positive role in that struggle. Before long, the Slade School, emptied of its male students and many of its female ones, is just a shadow of what it was before the war. And that is when the real Life Class begins for Paul, Kit and Elinor as everything they stand for and know is challenged by the realities of the brutal warfare that would go on to claim the lives of millions.

Paul and Kit find themselves working under primitive conditions in Belgium military hospitals and, for a time, serving as ambulance drivers during the worst of the fighting there. Each is tested, and each responds in his own way. Paul feels the suffering of those he treats and carries to safety so deeply that he finds himself able to paint at a level he could only dream about before having seen combat and even being wounded himself. He matures emotionally to such an extent that he is changed forever. Kit, on the other hand, goes to Belgium with the primary purpose of painting what he sees, manages to avoid most personal danger, and comes back as much the personal fraud as he was before leaving London. Elinor, despite spending a week in Belgium with Paul and witnessing a bombing attack on the town, refuses to much think about the war, insisting instead that her “work” is as important as anything else going on in the world. She focuses on her art while the rest of her life suffers.

Interestingly, it is only Paul, the least successful of the three before the war, who passes the ultimate Life Class.

It remains to be seen whether or not Life Class is book one of a new trilogy but its main characters are interesting enough for at least one follow-up book and its ending is ambiguous enough regarding the relationship between Paul and Elinor that readers would welcome a second look at these characters.

Rated at: 3.5


  1. Sam - It was good to read your thoughts on Pat Barker's latest. I liked it too. Not every work of an artist can be as comprehensive and singular a masterpiece as the Regeneration trio, but this one was a substantive and interesting novel - I agree. I'm a big Barker fan.

  2. It must be difficult for someone like Pat Barker, Ted, who sets the bar so high for herself that others criticize her for not reaching that level every time out. I suppose in a way that's a nice problem to have...

  3. Another one I am looking at longingly...

  4. It's certainly worth a look, Danielle. I'm happy that it didn't get past me. :-)