Synopses & Reviews
From the Booker Prize-winning author of The Regeneration Trilogy
, an acknowledged masterpiece of modern fiction, Life Class
is an exceptional new novel of artists and lovers caught in the maelstrom of the Great War.
It is the spring of 1914 and a group of young students have gathered in an art studio for a life-drawing class. Paul Tarrant and Elinor Brooke are two parts of an intriguing love triangle and, in the first days of war, they turn to each other. As spring turns to summer, Paul volunteers for the Belgian Red Cross and tends to wounded, dying soldiers from the front line. By the time he returns, Paul must confront the fact that life and love will never be the same for him again.
In Life Class, Pat Barker returns to her most renowned subject: the human devastation and psychic damage wrought by World War One on all levels of British society. Her skill in relaying the harrowing experience of modern warfare is matched by the depth of insight she brings to the experience of love and the morality of art in a time of war. Life Class is one of her genuine masterpieces.
"Set initially in 1914 before the start of WWI, Barker's first novel since 2004's Double Vision tells the story of two students at London's Slade School of Fine Art, Paul Tarrant and Elinor Brooke, along with that of Kit Neville, a promising young painter. Paul begins an affair with Teresa Halliday, a troubled artist's model, and Kit woos Elinor, but both men rush off to the Continent at the outset of hostilities to work with the wounded. The author's unflinching eye for detail and her supple prose create an undeniably powerful narrative, but her skills cannot compensate for a weak plot. What appear to be critical story lines (Paul's affair with Teresa, Kit's painting career) are almost abandoned once Paul and Elinor become lovers. And the book's main theme war's impact on art and love pales in comparison with the tragic experiences of those who fight and die in the conflict. Despite riveting passages depicting the waste and horror of WWI, this effort falls short of the standard set by Barker's magisterial Regeneration trilogy, the last of which, The Ghost Road, won the Booker Prize." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"As ever with Barker...the writing is breathtaking...sharply written and elegantly constructed." D. J. Taylor, The Guardian
"With great tenderness and insight, and a daring to forgo simple resolutions, Barker conveys a wartime world turned upside down." Mark Bostridge, The Independent
"This is a story about hopeful ambitions and relationships redirected and reshaped by a climate of catastrophic change....[It] render[s] the horrors of combat with (Barker's trademark) meticulously researched detail and piercing clarity. Secondary characters' experiences likewise amplify into lucid microcosms of the global cataclysm that shadows every individual life....Mature, unsentimental and searching. One of this excellent writer's finest books." Kirkus Reviews (starred)
"After several intriguing but lumpy novels set in the present or near-present, it becomes clear to the reader that World War I resonates with Ms. Barker with special force, for Life Class possesses the organic power and narrative sweep that her recent books with more contemporary settings lack." Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
"Barker doesn't spend a whole lot of time on the joy of creating or flashes of inspiration. Instead, as she paints a portrait of how three very different personalities cope with carnage and horror, she examines the place of art in a shaken world." Christian Science Monitor
"Life Class leaves us with a profound sense of gratitude for writers like Barker who are able to look at the world's frequent sorrows and occasional splendors with unflinching compassion." Los Angeles Times
"Life Class feels urgent and timely. It addresses head-on what Barker's previous novel...explored only obliquely: In a world where so much has gone wrong, where so much is at stake, can we justify making love and making art?" Miami Herald
"Here, as in her best fiction, Barker unveils psychologically rich characters in steady, even strokes; social and political drama, as well as personal ambition, expose their contradictions over the course of the novel." San Francisco Chronicle
"Barker's portrayal of the landscape of war...is all the more affecting for its stripped-down prose." Boston Globe
"[A] book so alive from page to page that it's difficult to put down." Seattle Times
About the Author
Pat Barker is the author of the highly acclaimed Regeneration Trilogy: Regeneration; The Eye in the Door, winner of the Guardian Fiction Prize; and The Ghost Road, winner of the Booker Prize; as well as seven other novels, most recently Double Vision. She lives in England.
Reading Group Guide
A haunting tribute to the experience of poet Siegfried Sassoon during the Great War, Pat Barkers Regeneration Trilogy established her as one of the foremost fiction writers of our time, culminating in The Ghost Road,
the Booker Prizewinning novel hailed by the New York Times
as a masterwork. Now she returns to the battlefields of World War I in a dramatic portrait of aspiring artists who inhabited pre-war London before being forced to confront the brutal realities of combat on the Continent. At once a love story and a meditation on the morality of art in a time of calamity, Life Class
evokes a world where heart and soul cannot be reconciled by physical survival alone.
The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended to enhance your reading of Pat Barkers Life Class. We hope they will enrich your experience of this mesmerizing novel.
1. With Life Class, you've returned to the World War I setting of your Regeneration trilogy. What is it about the Great War that you find so compelling? Why do you think readers are still interested in one of the last century’s many great conflicts?
The Great War was the first time most people were made aware of the terrible effects of modern weapons on fragile human bodies. The shock of this still lingers.
It’s war as a human experience that I find compelling. All wars are different but they are also alike. It’s the inhumanity of man to man that interests me along with all the attempts by organizations such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent to lessen its impact on the most vulnerable.
I would expect readers to go on being interested in the conflicts of the last century because we know more about them than we do about contemporary conflicts which are obscured by propaganda and disinformation and this enables us two think about the dilemmas of conflict more clearly.
2. As you did in Regeneration, you've incorporated some real–life characters into Life Class. Can you tell us something about Slade professor Henry Tonks and his role in your novel? About Lady Caroline? What’s the dramatic or strategic rationale for interweaving fact and fiction? And, if you're willing to tell us, are some of the main characters based on historical figures (is, for example, Elinor Brooke based on Dora Carrington)?
Henry Tonks was a practicing artist—as all Slade teachers had to be—and agood one, but his real genius was for teaching. He began life as a surgeon, teaching anatomy to medical students, but abandoned that career when he was offered a post at the Slade. He taught almost every distinguished British artist in the years after1880, though he didn't always approve of their subsequent development. “What a brood I have reared!” he said.
During the war years he worked as medical artists at a hospital for facial injuries and while there drew a remarkable series of portraits of disfigured young men which he refused to have exhibited on the grounds that they were too distressing. They are very remarkable, combining as they do a great sensitivity to the personality of the sitter with an unflinching depiction of the wound.
Lady Ottolone Morrel was a great patron of the arts and friend of impoverished artists and writers, some of whom pilloried her many eccentricities in their work.
Some of my other characters have real people as their starting points but they also differ from them in many ways and their lives quickly diverge from the originals.
I try to be accurate in my depiction of characters who are called by their own names, but the others are fiction and I invent freely.
I use real people because it sometimes seems that inventing a character to fill the role of real historical figure is rather futile. Henry Tonks was the Slade, and his high standards and exacting eye are fixed reference points around which the fictional characters revolve.
3. Your heroine Elinor Brooke seems particularly determined not to let the War interfere with her pursuit of her art. What is the role of art in the face of the collective trauma that is war? Frankly, I was surprised that there would be any female students at the Slade in that era; how unusual would Elinor have been?
Elinor wasn’t unusual. The majority of Slade students were female. They received the same tuition as the men though life classes were segregated. Some upper class girls used a year as the Slade as part of their finishing or to pass time till the right man came along. Others, like Elinor, took their art very seriously indeed.
The previous generation of Slade students also contained many talented women artists,. most notably Gwen John, Augustus John's sister who went to the Slade in 1895.
As to the role of the arts in wartime—that’s a huge question. Some of oinks pupils’s became official war artists and there's no doubt the Government’s motive was to mobilize the arts behind the war effort. But many of the paintings move far beyond propaganda which is why we continue to value them today.
I find Elinor’s resolute refusal to accept the war as a possible subject for art interesting. It sounds trivial and selfish at first but I think it’s got something to recommend it. It’s rather like WB Yeats refusal to regard trench warfare as a suitable subject for poetry on the grounds that it involved merely passive suffering. It also has echoes of Virginia’s Wolf’s concept of war as a purely masculine activity from which women should turn away.
4. Both your male protagonists, Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville, work with the wounded in Belgium; they aren't soldiers, though they certainly experience the horrors of trench warfare. But why don't you situate them right in the thick of battle as combatants?
I wanted Life Class to hinge on a stark contrast between the pre–war life of art students at the Slade and the opening weeks and months of the war. But men who volunteered for the army in August 1914 didn’t arrive in France until spring 1915 at the earliest because they had to train first. The soldiers fighting in 1914 were professionals. The only way I could get Paul and Kit out to France almost immediately was to have them volunteer to work as orderlies and drive ambulances where they were caught up in the chaos and virtual breakdown of the medical services which were trying to cope with a far higher level of casualties than anybody had foreseen. Paradoxically, although not soldiers when they return to London in early 1915 they are the only people in their circle to have any actual experience of the war.
5. I’m struck by the fact that your fictional worlds are largely dominated by big events—World War I, murder, 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan—which sets your work apart in today's literary landscape. Most current fiction seems to be more introspective, even egocentric. Do you view contemporary fiction in a similar way? Do you have a sense about why so many serious writers today are focusing more on the self and less on the events that shape society as well as the self?
I agree that much contemporary fiction is egocentric and introspective, partly perhaps because individual writers typically do not have a sense of connection to major events which they usually experience as passive observers via the television. This is in marked contrast to the two world wars which made demands on individuals which transformed their lives.
Contemporary writers who have been born in one society and either voluntarily or as refugees have been transplanted to a different culture find it easier to link their individual experience to a world wide trend of mass migration and dislocation. It’s no accident that much of the strongest contemporary writing deals with themes of uprooting and transformation.
You’ve obviously done plenty of research on the experience of World War I, for those in the action and those in England. Do you ever wonder why there wasn’t some kind of mass mutiny or widespread rebellion? It all seems so unbelievably dire—so callously cruel—that it’s sometimes hard to believe that people kept on for all those years.
There were some mutinies and rebellions. The British and French armies both had mutinies, though not on a large scale—and Russia’s involvement ended in revolution.
But in wartime people close ranks. A war needs to drag on for some considerable time before the voices questioning its purpose make themselves heard.
7. Are you working on a new book yet? Are you staying in the historical mode or moving back to a more contemporary setting?
I’ve started work on my next book which will remain in the First World War period and contain some of the same characters as Life Class. It’s set partly in a hospital which specialized in plastic surgery and also employed artists who worked alongside surgeons in the operating theatre—most notably Henry Tonks.
I’m fascinated by the interface between the arts and medicine. There are many contemporary initiatives exploring the role of the arts in healing and in preparing medical students for the emotionally testing aspects of their work, but the interface has never been closer than it was in that hospital in 1917.