Paul Tarrant is an artist. Or is he? He doesn’t come from the artistic background many of his peers boast, and he can’t seem to find his way as a painter. His technique is a sorry mess, and he lacks all confidence, particularly as compared with Kit Neville — avant-garde golden-haired boy of the Slade School of Fine Art — and Elinor Brooke, a young woman who has refused all conventional feminine roles in favor of her painting.
The first half of Pat Barker’s Life Class follows these three characters, and especially Paul, as they try to discern who they are and who they want to be in 1914. Do they have talent? What is art? Where is their place in society? Who loves whom, and how much, and should that change the vocational path they take?
Then the Great War comes crashing in, and it changes everything: not just life at home and life abroad, but who stays, who goes, who loves whom, and what art can and should mean. Suddenly couples and friends find themselves at odds, and former enemies find that they have things in common. Paul finds a fresh vision, Kit paints, for once, exactly what he sees, and Elinor battles with increasing urgency the voices that tell her that art is essentially frivolous.
I admit, as I write the plot summary, that this book sounds great on paper. In fact, I was badly disappointed in it. My experience with Pat Barker is that she’s a terrific writer. I loved her Regeneration trilogy, which said some interesting and original things about soldiers’ experience during World War I, and said it beautifully. This novel dealt with some of the same material, but from a different perspective, so I was expecting some of the same powerful work. Instead, I found it to be almost painfully cliched, and worse yet, dull as dishwater. It told and told and told, instead of showing a solitary thing, and the dialogue was repetitive at best. The first half of the book was aimless, establishing at enormous length and with mostly poor writing that here we had three people who felt out of place in life; the second half was marginally more interesting, but still unoriginal, establishing that war helps people understand what they want.
I finished the book for a reason: one of the characters was sympathetic enough that I wanted to know what happened to him. I’m mostly glad I didn’t abandon it, though long stretches of Life Class felt like a slog, and one of the other characters became so irritating by the end that I wanted to throw her out of a window. I did get some interesting information about artists who fought in the first World War, though the book could have done with more detail about that. In fact, my own favorite character was probably Henry Tonks, the real-life art master of the Slade, who was little more than a walk-on. I wouldn’t recommend this book for someone wanting to read something by Pat Barker. Start with Regeneration, which is brilliant, and skip Life Class.
And for those of you in the US, I wish you a happy Thanksgiving. For those of you everywhere else — I wish you much to be thankful for.