Life Class
Pat Barker
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Buy *Life Class* by Pat Barker online

Life Class
Pat Barker
320 pages
January 2009
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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In Life Class, Pat Barker continues to explore the emotional and physical fallout from World War I. She centers her novel on young artist Paul Tarrant and his time at London's Slade School of Art. In the spring of 1914 and safely ensconced at Slade, Paul would never have imagined that he would end up working in a military field hospital, shielding German bombs, cleaning up the blood of fallen soldiers and amputating the torn limbs of his English compatriots.

But it is here at Slade that Paul's story begins when he walks out of class one morning after his instructor, real life artist Henry Tonks, tells Paul that his work has got "no more bones in it than a sausage," and that "he seems to have no grasp of human anatomy at all." Disconsolate to the point of not continuing, Paul becomes ever more convinced that he's not improving as an artist and that he's actually been deteriorating from week to week.

In short order, Paul meets the lovely Elinor Brooke, a fellow student at Slade to whom he attaches himself in the hope that she can ease some of his stress. Paul is well aware of the stir of desire that Elena produces in him, and he's carried away by the easy air of intimacy that Elinor creates between herself and any man she happens to speak to.

As they meet up at the smoky Café Royal to talk about their work and ponder the ramifications of the impending war, Paul can feel all of the disappointments of the past few months dropping away. But a love triangle with all of its petty jealousies is enormously hard to handle; just ask Kit Neville, who unwittingly becomes a challenger for Elinor's heart.

Kit is just starting to become famous as an artist - a circumstance that some people attribute to a talent for painting and others to his talent for self-promotion and ability to schmooze. The problem, however, is that Kit is just too far gone in his feelings for Elinor, much to the chagrin of Paul, who views his friend as nothing more than a disingenuous complainer.

No matter. Paul soon finds himself falling for the glamorous Teresa Haliday. Once a Slade model, Teresa hides her cynicism about men and their motives behind her glamorous exterior. She assumes equality with men, a fragile sort of equality based ultimately on sex, and Paul senses a capacity for passion in her greater than anything he'd so far experienced.

In desperation, Paul enters into an affair with Teresa, meeting for trysts in her shadowy basement flat. Teresa becomes paranoid, convinced that her husband is watching over them, prowling around outside at night as she makes love to Paul in her bed. Underneath these anxieties, the insecure Paul finds himself coming unglued, hysterically confessing a self-deceptive love to Teresa, while continuing to carry a romantic flame for Elinor.

The Great War begins, the backdrop against which the story of this foursome plays out, and these characters cannot help but be caught up in its devastating emotional and physical terrain. The latter part of the novel - written mainly in epistolary form - moves between London and the Belgian city of Ypres near the Western Front as both Elinor and Paul try to navigate the rocky waters of love and war, becoming ever more drawn to each other and their artistic natures.

These letters from Paul to Elinor, then from Elinor to Paul, provide some of the most moving parts of the novel, conveying lives irreversibly torn apart and a world fractured on both fronts. She sees the wounded men on Hampstead Heath in their blue uniforms being pushed along the paths in wheelchairs. He writes of the columns of men in wet, gleaming capes and helmets, the shouting and cries, the explosion of petrol tanks, "the crump of shells bursting, the slosh of boots through mud, all smothered, adding to this unreality of shock and fear."

In sparse, beautifully modulated prose, Barker couches her love story in the grim realities of war, introducing secondary characters who orbit Paul's life during his time as a Red Cross orderly working on the front lines. There's Sister Byrd, the tough voice of authority in the Salle d'Attente, unbending, efficient, detached, "halfway to being a monster"; and the freckle-faced Richard Lewis, a Quaker who represents the inexperience of youth and with whom Paul forms an almost paternal attachment.

Barker eventually ties all of her themes and characters together with dramatic relish, combining the unlikely bedfellows of medicine and art as Paul, among the chaos, tries to paint again, renting a beautiful lime-washed room in Ypres as he searches for privacy and normality, perhaps to get his own mind back, perhaps also to seek solace from the blood and gangrene, and a generation of innocent young men being blindly led their deaths.

Ultimately it is art that continues to endure in this powerful tale of war and love, the adoration of painting finally bringing Elinor and Paul back together in London as we witness a couple who now possess a certain cynicism and world weariness toward the war lamenting how it has irrevocably altered their lives.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2008

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