First Published: 2007 by Hamish Hamilton (Penguin ed. 2012)
My copy: Bought in paperback
Memorable quote: “‘I wonder how it happened,’ Elinor said. ‘Why they stopped believing the world was going to end?’
I’m a fan of Pat Barker’s work in general although I still consider her Regeneration Trilogy to be her finest hour. So it was with much excitement that I picked up Life Class, her first novel since The Ghost Road to return to the powerful setting of the First World War. The book explores that earth-shattering, illusion-shattering period of history from the perspective of Paul and Elinor, two art students both studying at The Slade under the renowned Henry Tonks. Just as Tonks’s real history saw him move from medicine to art then later heeding the call to return to the hospital and become a pioneer of plastic surgery, so this novel has much of interest to say about the intersection between art and war. The title clearly refers both to the studies Paul and Elinor undertake at the Slade and to the very different lessons they learn in places like Ypres. Do such firsthand horrors render their former studies in painting frivolous and irrelevant or is art the only way to truly capture the brutality of war for those at home?
Barker writes so well and this was an engaging read but I have to admit that despite some stirring scenes, for me, it never reached the emotional heights of Regeneration. Paul and Elinor are both drifters in their own way, so wrapped up in themselves and in inner secrets that are only partially revealed that it’s hard to fully care about them. As a lover of war novels I was also surprised to find myself longing for more scenes in The Slade rather than on the front line. Perhaps this response is a sign that Paul’s experiences in the Belgian hospitals, though powerfully rendered, didn’t really give me anything I hadn’t read before whereas the art/war contrast is genuinely fascinating. Life Class would probably have scored higher if I’d never read Barker’s earlier war trilogy but it’s still certainly worth a read and I will at some point pick up the sequel, Toby’s Room, which apparently features the same characters and may unlock more of the secrets this novel left so complexly swaddled.