Pat Barker – Life Class

I was really looking forward to reading this one. I am a big fan of Pat Barker and have read all of her previous novels. Like most people I was introduced to her through the Regeneration Trilogy but when I read a bit about her I wanted to read more of her books. I must confess it does have a bit to do with the fact that she’s a Geordie and I was feeling a bit homesick at the time, but anyway, I came to her she has not let me down. I loved the early novels set in Newcastle and the later, more critically acclaimed stuff such as Border Crossing, which has been on the VCE English text list, showed great depth in her writing. She has been willing to tackle big issues in complex ways and deserves a good following. So Life Class was there at Borders Chadstone and I had to get it. I read it in a couple of nights but was left slightly disappointed at the end as the plot just seems to stop. It’s about a young Northern (what else?) man, Paul, who has a calling as an artist. He is accepted into the Slade School in London and thanks to a generous elderly relative who left some money he is able to go and fulfil his dreams. Of course nothing comes that easily. He is mortified by the criticism of Tonks, the experienced art teacher and almost gives up. He falls in love with a girl, after dating her friend for a while, until the friend’s husband beats him up and she leaves to go back up North to escape such a brute of a husband. He begins to form a relationship with Elinor after being invited to her house, along with another admirer Neville Kitt. Neville, Paul and Elinor uncomfortably circle around each other. Neville is well bred and so is Elinor, but Paul is not really of their circle. This is 1914.
Paul tries to join the army but has TB so they won’t have him. He then decides to join as an orderly and later becomes an ambulance driver. He stoically deals with the war and we read his letters to Elinor and hers back to him. Gradually their relationship changes as she falls in with the Bloomsbury set and he is struggling with the horrors of war. Barker’s characters are believable, the flighty and independent Elinor, the insecure upper class Neville (although at times he is a little stereotypical) and the dour Paul. I just didn’t really connect with Paul as much as I would have liked to. I understood that Barker didn’t want to turn him into a cliché by having him traumatised by the war, but I didn’t really feel that he had a lot of emotional depth. Maybe some people don’t, but I don’t necessarily want to read about them.
All in all it was an interesting read, the whole time is interesting, the outbreak of World War I and the beginnings of independence for some women (particularly upper middle and upper class ones) and the whole Bloomsbury set’s idea that they could just ignore the war(!). However, I finished this one feeling a bit unsatisfied. What a shame.

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