Life Class By Pat Barker
Ten years ago we were reading The Ghost Road by Pat Barker, which won the prestigious Booker Prize for Fiction in 1995. The Ghost Road completed the trilogy started with Regeneration and followed by The Eye in the Door. These powerful novels about the First World War were partly inspired by Pat Barker's grandfather's experiences fighting in the trenches in France. This summer we have a new novel from Pat Barker, Life Class, again set at the time of the First World War.
We begin at the Slade School of Art in London, England. We meet students Elinor Brooke, there on a scholarship. She is dedicated to her painting over all else. Elinor's friends include Kit Neville, already making a reputation with his gallery exhibits, and Paul Tarrant, struggling to find his place in art and in life.
They are taught by the famous surgeon and painter Henry Tonks, known for his rather gruesome paintings of facially mutilated men. In the novel he is a respected and stern instructor, forcing his students to "see" for themselves and show it in their painting.
Both Kit and Elinor are from educated and affluent families. Paul grew up in a smaller northern town and it is only because of an inheritance that he is able to come to London to study art; all the while feeling that he may not have any talent at all, and that his aunt would have considered it wasteful. Both Paul and Kit are attracted to Elinor – Kit, with the confidence of conquest. Paul steps aside and becomes involved with a life-class model, both living in fear of her estranged and brutal husband.
As England is drawn into the war in Europe the lives of our students change. The men feel they must fight, and the women adjust to their absence. Both Kit and Paul find themselves working in field hospitals - close in proximity but not in contact - in Belgium. Ypres is the closest town.
Life Class, like other books by Pat Barker, is sometimes uncomfortable. She writes the truth of the time and the people as she sees it. She explores the sexuality of her characters – not always attractive, but always appropriate to the situation.
As a historian Pat Barker is accurate in historical detail.
This is my favourite type of novel - one combining accurate historical detail and the perfect blend of factual and fictional characters.
Pat Barker can write both sensitively and brutally about the war and its effects.
Through the eyes of Paul we see the terrible agony of the injured coming into the Red Cross field hospital. When Paul is injured himself and returns to England to recover he finds it difficult to find his place among those who had remained. Elinor has become one of the circle of Lady Ottoline Morrell and her friends, pacifists and homosexuals, who seem to Paul to be in denial of the reality of the war.
This is a book that will be a satisfying read for anyone interested in art - the world of the Slade School in the years just before and during the First World War, the student life, the cafes, the beginning of a time when young women are able to make choices for themselves.
Elinor knows that her family sees her art as a past time, but she sees it as more important than anything else in her life, and is determined not to let anyone come before her art.