on 16 May 2016
Life Class is the first in a trilogy by Pat Barker, the author most known for her Regeneration series of novels. It is followed by Toby’s Room and culminates in the recently published Noonday.
As in Barker’s previous novels, Life Class is focused, predominantly, on the First World War. It begins prior to the war, as tensions are building in Europe, with a group of friends who attend a prestigious art school in London. When war is declared, a love triangle is dismantled. Neville volunteers as an ambulance driver and Paul as a medic close to the frontline, whilst Elinor, their love interest, continues to paint.
Barker doesn’t make light of any aspect of war; in fact, throughout, there are some heart-stopping moments that can only have been written following intense research and fact-finding. There are descriptions of injury and moments of humanity that are difficult to read, but very humbling. Barker demonstrates that she has great talent in portraying these scenes throughout her various novels.
In a different form to previous stories, Pat Barker’s initial scene-setting in an art school provokes an artistic viewpoint. Elinor, as the character most distanced from the atrocities, remains devoted to her art, painting things she loves, and refusing to encourage depictions of war in this medium. It asks the reader whether art should be what we choose to make it, or whether it should be a means of expression, even of the greatest of horrors.
Whilst I enjoyed Life Class and my interest is piqued enough to want to read the following two books, it didn’t feel as strong as stories of a similar theme. In terms of language and description, it was vivid and Barker can’t be criticised for that. The artistic aspect brought originality too, and having an observer of war, albeit a frustrating and fairly unlikeable one, brought fresh insight. However, having these two perspectives also meant some focus was lost. It meandered a little too much between characters, so that we were never fully in the war-zone or in the art school. I’m hoping that this may be addressed a little in Toby’s room, which I hope to read shortly.
on 23 May 2016
I haven't finished reading this yet but am enjoying it so far - as I have the other books by this author. The period details are excellent and the atmosphere she conjures up really makes you feel you are there.
on 5 December 2015
Pat Barker is one of my top five novelists. She writes sparingly with not a word wasted, but creates a world so real with detail and characterization. ‘Life Class’ is the first of her #LifeClass trilogy of novels which tell the story of brother and sister Elinor and Toby, and Elinor’s fellow art students Paul and Kit, through the Great War. I first read this book when it was published in 2007 and devoured it. I have re-read it now to refresh my memory of the story and characters, before I read the newly published third volume of the trilogy, ‘Noonday’.
The story starts in 1914 in a life-drawing class at the Slade School of Art in London. The class is taken by Professor Henry Tonks, a real-life character, artist and surgeon. Barker weaves her fictional story around the true story of Tonks, the Slade, and the outbreak of the Great War. For student Paul Tarrant, the presence of Tonks is intimidating, as he struggles to find his identity as an artist. This is a novel about young people and their journey from youth to maturity via art and love, brutally influenced by the horrors of war. Interwoven with Paul’s story – he volunteers as an ambulance driver and goes to Ypres, working in a hospital – is that of Elinor Brooke, fellow art student. Elinor’s journey to adulthood is different, given that she is a woman at a time when middle-class women are not expected to have a career. She remains in London, continues to paint and mixes with the society group of Lady Ottoline Morrell, another true character, mixing with pacifists, conscientious objectors and the Bloomsbury Group.
Essentially, this is a triangular love story set into the structure of war. As the students struggle to define themselves as artists, their safe world collapses around them and the abnormal becomes normal. As Paul undertakes gruesome nursing tasks, he questions the purpose of war art and what it can achieve. As his life becomes surreal, so he is cast adrift from his former life without context to judge either his ability as an artist, or his humanity in the face of war. Are some things simply too horrific to paint?
on 27 July 2014
This was a beautifully written and descriptive book. I enjoyed it, having read the other Pat Barker novels and particularly the associated one - Toby's Room'. An insight into what it might have been like at the time of the first world war.
on 16 July 2013
It seems inevitable that an author who writes a masterpiece will be judged against it; In Pat barker's case she set the bar so high with Regeneration that it is practically impossible to achieve that standard a second time. Nevertheless, this book disappoints against more modest targets. The characters are nerveless and detached. They seem uninvolved with themselves, each other and their environment. Even in bed they go through the expected action without emotion. Somehow you feel that the author is likewise uninvolved with her characters; even the storyline seems contrived linking aspiring painters in this war story without convincing about art or war. Cool is one thing, but it is possible to read this book without caring about the characters; that can't be good.
on 8 September 2008
I haven't read a Barker novel since 'The Ghost Road', and was attracted to this by the notices, which said it was her best effort since that novel. A return to familiar territory, it begins just as WW1 is about to begin, at London's Slade School of Art. Paul Tarrant, a Northerner who is living from an inheritance fund, entertains grave doubts about his artistic abilities. He becomes infatuated with a fellow student Elinor, but begins an affair with Teresa, an artist's model. When war breaks out, Paul tries to enlist, is refused on health grounds, but joins up as a medical orderly. Paul and Elinor becomes lovers and she joins him, briefly, for a few days in the town of Ypres, just as the town is bombarded. When Elinor returns, she becomes an associate of the anti-war Bloomsbury set, while Paul encounters the horror of the front, and is wounded. He returns to London, where he and Elinor negotiate the nature of their relationship.
Although I kept reading to the end, I remained unsatisfied by this novel. Barker has covered this ground before, so I could not see the point of the story, except perhaps as the pretext of a rather half-hearted meditation upon the role of art in times of war. (In the novel, Paul paints the horror he sees, while Elinor refuses to do so, insisting that such horrors entrap the 'true' nature of life.) After touching upon such topics, the novel just seems to stop, as if the author had simply abandoned it - in the same way that a number of the characters simply abandon their paintings and drawings. Have I failed to pick up on something here? The problem is that the book does not give me enough motivation to attempt to think it through...well-written enough, and good for a journey, or a wet weekend, but not a corker.
on 3 February 2008
(from my amazon.com review)
Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy is a great work, truly deserving of 5 stars (or more!). I've sent copies to family and friends, and I have copies both at home and in the office for easy rereading. Life Class takes us back to WW I, but sadly the magic of the Regeneration trilogy just isn't there. As with Regeneration, there are scenes in London and of the war (behind the front, though, at first-aid stations). Regeneration did a brilliant job of meshing real characters (Rivers, Owen, Sassoon, Graves, etc) with fictional ones (Billy). Life Class has the real character Tonks (at the Strade), but his part is minor. Owen's work "Anthem for Doomed Youth" seems to exemplify Regeneration--there's a sense of similar foreboding over the trilogy, and we know from history that Owen is indeed doomed, and Sassoon and Graves lived. Life Class doesn't have a similar feeling.
In Regeneration, the threads of Rivers, Owen, Sassoon, Graves, and Billy continue and intertwine throughout the trilogy. In Life Class, Pat Barker as Atropos has cut lots of threads short--not through death, but by having what seem like important characters disappear from the picture. Things seem shallower--there's not the depth and richness that Regeneration has.
It may be that we've been spoiled by Regeneration: we expect Pat Barker's other novels to rise to that standard. But few WW I novels do rise to that standard--Under Fire, Her Privates We, Paths of Glory, and not many others. I have a nagging feeling that if Pat Barker had not written Regeneration, I might perhaps have given Life Class 4 stars. It's decent, but not great, and 8-10 years from now I might reread it. But I reread Regeneration every couple of years, and I have 3-4 copies of the trilogy books--I worry about wanting to read them and not being able to find them. So Life Class is a decent read, and probably better if you aren't thinking about Regeneration as you read it
A wonderfully readable account of the horrors of World War I, seen through the eyes of a group of Slade art students. Barker draws on the lives of real artists, including Christopher Nevinson and Dora Carrington, but her characters nevertheless feel very real, rather than pastiche, and very convincing. She brings the pre-World War I art school world as much to life as she does the horrors of the ambulence service in Belgium, where her hero Paul Tarrant goes to work. And she shows very well the different attitudes among the artists to the war: Paul resists having to fight but knows he has to be at the front doing something, Eleanor, back in London, tries her hardest to pretend nothing is happening, Kit realizes that the war means the death of society as they have known it. As always, Barker's description of places and landscape is superb. The only problem with the novel is that it certainly needs a sequel - it finishes rather abruptly, and we have no idea what will happen to any of the characters when the war ends. I hope Barker writes the sequel soon - this has the potential to be the first novel in a trilogy as good as her 'Regeneration' trilogy.
on 6 October 2011
I was lucky enough to hear Pat Barker read from this book when it was first published. As always, Pat Barker books are very easy to read and it was enjoyable to become engrossed in some fabulous narrative. Her characters are always well developed even when (in this case) you might not like them. I liked the two clear sections of this book, it became an almost before and after more so for Paul than any of the other characters I felt.
I enjoyed the combination of art and history and with the references at the end any readers interested in developing their knowledge in this area have a range of resources they could look at. I don't have a lot to say that isn't already available to read in other reviews. What I will mention is that her writing is so good and accessible to all but doesn't bypass any of the atrocities of war.
The only reason this book doesn't get the full five stars from me is because I didn't enjoy all of the letters between Paul and Elinor. They were a good addition to the novel and made it more personal but I just didn't enjoy them in the same way as I did the narrative.
on 24 February 2013
I did enjoy this book and was fascinated by the picture it painted of the Slade and Cafe Royale at that time. However I'm not sure that all of it worked, especially Paul's affair with the model who had a jealous husband but yes it is easy to read and the charactors are intriguing.