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Life Class (2007)

Life Class (2007)

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3.44 of 5 Votes: 5
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0241142970 (ISBN13: 9780241142974)
hamish hamilton

About book Life Class (2007)

Pat Barker's books set in World War One continue to blow me away. Her “Regeneration” trilogy (“Regeneration,” “The Eye in the Door” and “The Ghost Road”) - centred on lightly fictionalised versions of the famous British war poets - were gruelling and transfixing, set on the front lines and in a psychiatric hospital for soldiers. "Life Class" is (relatively) less grim, revolving as it does around the lives of a group of Slade art school students at the outbreak and into the war.The book opens with heady pre-War times; flirting, drinking, fighting, and grappling with tutor Henry Tonks. Three characters emerge as our focus: the determined and talented student Elinor Brooke, her questionably talented and self-doubting fellow student Paul Tarrant, and the recent graduate and successful young painter, Kit Neville.The three form a romantic triangle, one which continues as the war arrives and poses - among many, many questions - to all three a challenge: does one continue to make art at this time, and if so - how? Paul and Neville both end up in France as orderlies and then ambulance drivers; the single most harrowing sequence of the book depicts Paul driving an ambulance from the front line back to the hospital and pulling over to try to help a group of French soldiers. Neville somewhat cynically - but still emotionally - harvest the slaughterhouse horrors of the front for subject matter to continue his work: Paul draws to try to escape, but also through this, finds a new depth to his own abilities.Elinor meanwhile remains in England, dealing with her family's expectation that she will stop painting and start nursing, being drawn into pacifist circles. A series of letters between her and Paul make explicit - and sad, and painful - the effect of two people grappling with two very different realities, neither fully trusting the other to understand the world they are living in, both trying to make it clear, make it real, but also distance themselves from it by putting it down on paper and sending it away to be borne by someone else.One of the things that draws me to Barker's books is that the words very rarely get in the way of the story. It is masterful, compelling storytelling, but the language is plain, rarely remarkable except for where it teeters on the edge of cliche. You are utterly rooted in the book as soon as it clamps around you, and you come out tired, slightly soiled, startled, and a little transformed.

I loved Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy, and this book, set at the beginning of the 1st WW, feels like an addition - almost a prequel - to that canon. The story looks at how people responded to the outbreak of war, and how it changed some lives, unsettled others and didn't seem to affect some people one jot. I didn't feel it was quite as well structured as the others. Characters move in and out of focus, as Paul Tarrant, a working-class strudent at the Slade, and Elinor Brooke, an scholarship artist from an upper-middle class background, live their lives in detailed moments which give the story a slight 'journal' feel. The war starts quite late into the novel and, unlike some of her other work on this period, never really felt to me like a 'character' in itself, but rather something incidental that was happening to Paul, who volunteers to drive an ambulance at the front. What seemed to be missing from the novel, and what I found most frustrating, are the mentions of Paul and Elinor’s professor, Henry Tonks. This man pioneered developments in plastic surgery by drawing patients pre- and post-operation, after leaving the Slade to go back to medicine at the start of the war. But not a lot of this is covered in the book, and Tonks, like Paul’s first love Teresa, slides out of view. I would have liked more of this, and I would have like a more traditionally conclusive ending, especially as we leave the characters as the war moves into full throttle. Maybe if you haven’t read any of Barker’s 1st WW books yet, you might start with this one, leaving the others to entice you afterwards.

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I found myself immediately settled into the atmosphere of pre-WW I England in Pat Barker's novel "Life Class." As someone interested in art, and in the role of artists in society, I thoroughly enjoyed Barker's scenes of her characters working, romancing, and competing with each other on the brink of the war and in during its initial intensity as England joins the conflict. Barker explores art as social commentary, artists as outside the social class considered "responsible" and artists who both believe in their talents and dismiss them. My only complaint is that the second half of the book, the war sections, are stronger than the balance and I found myself often feeling I had a cut-out of a scene or a character and hungered for the dimensionality a bit more story would have provided. Perhaps a great deal of meaningful detail hit the editing floor? I missed not having it.That said, a great novel by an always well-researched and competent author. Enjoyable!

In Pat Barker's latest novel she returns to the horror of WWI, the setting of her highly acclaimed Regeneration trilogy. The novel follows a trio of art students and their preoccupations with love and lust, which pale to insignificance as the momentum of war gathers pace. Paul and Kit both volunteer for Red Cross duty at the front, and process their experiences into their painting, whereas in contrast, Elinor joins the circle around Lady Ottoline Morrell, society hostess to pacifists, conscientious objectors and the Bloomsbury Group, and refuses to allow war any place in artistic endeavour. And the question of aesthetics is raised amongst the fictional artists: How much horror can or should be shown? Is horrific injury, gangrene, pain and suffering a suitable subject for art? Does that turn into propaganda?Very satisfying mix of learning and the pleasures of a good read.

I love the Regeneration trilogy so much, but I just can’t get into Barker’s other work. Her latest novel struck me as weirdly unfocused: the first half follows Paul through art school and various romantic assignations, including a quasi love triangle thing; I didn’t find it particularly compelling. Even after Paul goes to war as an ambulance driver and hospital worker, I couldn’t latch on—I was never at all invested or even particularly interested in Paul and Elinor as a couple, and I felt at times that I was reading the notes for the novel, instead of the finished thing. At one point, for example, Paul thinks about how much he’d come to love a fallen comrade, and all I could think was—what? When did that happen? We’re never shown, and I found it frustrating that so much of the action—the emotional action, even—was taking place off screen.I don’t know. The Regeneration books are still really, incredibly good. This just...isn’t.

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