Life Class

Let’s put it out there – Pat Barker is a genius. While the storyline and setting of Regeneration may not have been right up my alley, Border Crossing is pretty amazing and we can now add Life Class to that subheading. You have got to admire an author who is not afraid to tackle any of the “nasties” of modern life.

Life Class starts off concerning itself with the lives and loves of a group of students at the Slade School of Art, although ultimately it the war, and art and the war that is the focus of the novel. Paul, a somewhat disgruntled and nearly failing artist, is attracted to Elinor (like many other men on campus, including the hugely successful Kit Neville). However, Paul soon finds himself caught up in a relationship with Teresa, an artist’s model. Teresa is dark and mysterious, but Paul is not sure how much he trusts her, or her stories about her abusive husband. With such a lack of trust, it is no wonder when this fizzles out.

As we begin to see the growing attraction between Paul and Elinor, the narrative becomes interspersed with references to the possibility of war, and Neville and Paul both feel bound by duty (and artistic greed in Neville’s case) to make their way to the front in medical positions.

Although the narrative largely follows Paul, he, Neville and Elinor have very different experiences of the war, especially as artists. Neville, desperate for acclaim, wants to paint the war; it’s real, relevant and not subject matter that everyone has access to. Paul initially can’t think of painting, but eventually the horrors seem to flow from him into his paintbrush. The culmination of this is a sketch of a man with his jaws blown off that he later shows the art teacher who was previously so contemptuous of his work. Paul acknowledges that it is not a work he can ever display or sell, but he wants his teacher to see what he has become. The reader sees it too. Meanwhile Elinor has tellingly gotten involved with the Bloomsbury set, and the concept of painting the war is distasteful to her.

Paul’s return marks him as a changed man, and he is unable to come to terms with some aspects of his previous life. The ending is a little abrupt and uncertain, but this reflects the mental state of those returning from war, unsure of what the future will hold for them. So, the reader gets a rather “organic” experience, although it is sure to disappoint some. Overall though, I enjoyed Life Class (loaded title, huh?), especially the artistic aspects of it.

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