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Life Class - Book of the Month

by Pat Barker

It is the spring of 1914. Paul Tarrant, with Pharaonic good looks and an ambition to be an artist, attends the famous Slade School of Art in London. The Slade is avant-garde in admitting young women as students but the life class is segregated, of course.

Paul is technically accomplished but his work lacks depth. Professor Tonks, of Slade renown, is aware that Paul is very talented but that his work is mechanical and that he is from a working class Middlesborough family. Paul’s bid to become an artist, funded by a small legacy, is motivated by a wish to get away from the dark drama and colour of the mines and factories, the chimneys, the mills, the cobbled streets, and the pubs where knobbly hands shuffled dominoes.

Paul unashamedly delights in the glamour of the Cafe Royal, with its tall mirrors, and its chandeliers; sensually he enjoys the sleek heads and bare shoulders of the women, and the laughter, the drinking, and the sense of witty things being said. But sooner rather than later he must succeed as a painter or go home and get a job. And, of course, he is in love. She is Elinor Brooke, a bright star of the Slade, and a loving, but platonic (and virginal) friend. But what would Elinor’s Mummy and Daddy think of him as a prospective son-in-law?

Paul consoles himself in a rewarding infatuation with Teresa Halliday, whose beauty and local celebrity as an artists’ model is undimmed by her dysfunctional family background. She calls Professor Tonks, Henry and Augustus John, Gus.

In September war breaks out. Young men, including Paul, enlist, as their patriotic rite of passage. Paul’s weak chest precludes military service, so he volunteers as an ambulance driver, and finds himself in a field hospital attending to soldiers with horrific wounds. Later he drives ambulances to the front to collect the wounded and bring them back to the collection of miserable huts that serves as a hospital. Paul is traumatised by the suffering of the wounded, the dying men and horses, the terrible death roared out by the guns, the shelling of civilians, including children, and the devastation of what must have been a quiet farming countryside. He sees the young men who march, whistling bravely, to the front, and he sees the broken wrecks who shamble back.

Elinor, meanwhile, is totally committed to her Art, and hating the war, she mixes with the notoriously pacifist Bloomsberries. But she manages a brief visit to Paul, and touched by his dreadful life, offers up her virginity. They eat at a small local cafe. ‘What about your work?’ she asks, ignoring what he did at the hospital. ‘What do you draw?’ ‘Oh, people at the hospital. Patients...That’s what I see. Though...nobody’s going to hang that sort of thing in a gallery.’
‘Why would you want them to?, she asks
‘Because it’s there. They’re there, the people, the men. And it’s not right their suffering should just be swept out of sight.’
‘I’d have thought it was even less right to put it on the wall of a public gallery...An arty freak show...You can’t use people like that.’

Paul is wounded and invalided home. He has altered. Now he has something he passionately wants to paint, although his somber, haunting and horrifying paintings will never find a gallery until after the end of the war.

Pat Barker’s descriptive writing carries the reader wholly into the drama of the novel and yet one is fully aware of the things unspoken. LIFE CLASS is a powerful story of young people growing up in extraordinary circumstances. It is an unforgettable book, incredibly well-researched, and written with passion and wisdom.

Read our interview with Pat Barker.

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