Thursday, 19 November 2015

Life Class by Pat Barker

Pat Barker must surely be the master of World War One fiction, being the author of the acclaimed Regeneration trilogy. Her more recent war-themed series features three young artists who meet at the Slade school of art as war clouds are gathering. The first in this trilogy is Life Class which begins in the lazy balmy summer of 1914.

Paul Tarrant is struggling to impress his life-class teacher, while he is attracted to the infinitely posher and more talented Elinor Brooke, who remains friendly but aloof. Paul throws himself into an affair with a life model with disastrous results. Kit Neville has made a name for himself with his avant-garde style of painting, and is besotted with Elinor as well. A country house party is full of sexual tension between the three, but all anybody can talk about is the coming war.

Both Kit and Paul find themselves at the front, Paul working as a Red Cross orderly while Elinor steadfastly refuses to think about the war effort and concentrates on her painting. And yet it is the horror of what Paul must confront every day that encourages him to draw – but is what he creates fit for public viewing?

Barker recreates the atrocities and dreadful ironies of the front – the language is sparse and direct leaving the facts to speak for themselves, amplified through the empathy she creates in the reader for eye-witness Paul. The question of what the role of art should be in times of war runs through the book adding another layer. There is more to tell, and the characters have more to learn about life, love and art, as well as war. The follow-up books are Toby’s Room and Noonday; the last of these was released earlier this year.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: Life Class

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