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Life Class #1

Life Class

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Life Class is the first novel in Pat Barker's Life Class Trilogy - a powerful and unforgettable story of art and war Spring, 1914. The students at the Slade School of Art gather in Henry Tonks's studio for his life-drawing class. But for Paul Tarrant the class is troubling, underscoring his own uncertainty about making a mark on the world. When war breaks out and the army won't take Paul, he enlists in the Belgian Red Cross just as he and fellow student Elinor Brooke admit their feelings for one another. Amidst the devastation in Ypres, Paul comes to see the world anew - but have his experiences changed him completely? 'Triumphant, shattering, inspiring' The Times 'Barker writes as brilliantly as ever . . . with great tenderness and insight she conveys a wartime world turned upside down'Independent on Sunday 'Vigorous, masterly, gripping' Penelope Lively, Independent 'Extraordinarily powerful' Sunday Telegraph

256 pages, Hardcover

First published July 17, 2007

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About the author

Pat Barker

37 books2,110 followers
Pat Barker, CBE, FRSL was born in Thornaby-on-Tees in 1943. She was educated at the London School of Economics and has been a teacher of history and politics.

Her books include 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. She's married and lives in Durham, England.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 654 reviews
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,490 reviews2,712 followers
August 31, 2020
'Of course it matters, in one way, it matters that people are dying. I just don't think that's what art should be about. It's like painting a train crash. Of course it's dreadful, but it's not...' She was groping for words.

Thus Elinor, a protected middle-class girl who has enough of a sense of independence to take herself off to the Slade in the years just before WW1 but who is still, as we see, wedded to conventional definitions of art, too blindly like the 'two old codgers' as she calls them who visit Kit Neville's exhibition and shake their heads saying "it's not much like cricket, is it?". On the other side of the debate is working-class Northerner, Paul, who argues for painting the reality of war and, specifically the wounds and mutilations of the Western Front: "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."

It's a fascinating subtext, this theme of art and society, and questions about the relevance of art, but, from what I recall, it is given more prominence in the sequel, Toby's Room. Life Class can be said to be 'about' many things: it's a sort of coming-of-age novel (though the protagonists are perhaps older than we might expect - but, then, this is Edwardian England), it's neatly sculpted into a 'peace' and 'war' section with the split coming at precisely 50%, and it deals with issues of vocation, of class and sexuality, of women's options all with a light touch.

I'd forgotten just what an excellent writer Barker is: her prose is seemingly plain - no extravagant metaphors and similes, she keeps it clean and pared back, but she is precise and, if not exactly elegant (though there's nothing rough either), she has the knack of drawing us deeply into the lives of her characters. As always, she's researched her topics (witness the brief bibliography at the back) but this is knowledge worn lightly: Barker inhabits her historical world and makes us at home there, too.

In lots of ways this is a quiet novel - Barker keeps the drama down despite the section set in Ypres, yet a lot happens in a relatively scant number of pages (c.250-300 depending on the edition). Suffice it to say, I was deeply invested in the characters who feel like real people with all their awkwardnesses and flaws. A book full of empathy and understanding.
Profile Image for Paul.
1,217 reviews1,964 followers
November 10, 2017
This is the first volume of Pat Barker’s second WW1 trilogy. I have managed to read the second volume (Toby’s Room) first, so I have hastily read this to catch up. It revolves around a group of painters at the Slade and starts just before the War. The fictional characters are based on a real group of artists at The Slade at the time (Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington, Barbara Hiles, Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer and Christopher Nevinson). Elinor Brooke is Carrington, Kit Neville is a mix of Nevinson and Gertler, Paul Tarrant is a mix of Nash and Spencer. Their teacher Henry Tonks is one of the real life characters in the book and Ottoline Morrell and Augustus John show up as well.
The beginning of the book portrays the bohemian lifestyles the artists are leading based on the Slade and the coffee houses they inhabit. All is not particularly well for any of the characters; each has their own demons. Elinor struggles to be taken seriously as a female artist, she also has Paul and Kit pursuing her and can’t really decide whether she wants both, one or the other or neither of them. Relationships come and go and there is a purposelessness about it.
The war then intrudes. Elinor, at this point in a relationship with Paul, decides to have nothing to do with the war. Paul is not allowed to fight because of his health and he joins and is a medical orderly near the front line. Kit also joins up and is a stretcher bearer. As always Barker pulls no punches and the medical descriptions are very graphic ranging from piles of amputated limbs and a rather too detailed description of a groin injury. There are interesting vignettes, especially the Quaker medical orderly who works with Paul for a while and Burton, the surgeon. The irony of war is obvious; a French soldier who has attempted suicide by shooting himself, is nursed back to health so he can be shot for desertion (suicide, or attempting it being considered desertion).
This is very much scene setting for the second novel (but having read the second I would say that). The novel moves along at a good pace and I read most of it in a day. Barker seems very at home writing about WW1 and she does it well.
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,272 reviews49 followers
September 12, 2020
I first read this book shortly after the paperback was published, and reread it for a discussion in the Reading the 20th Century group. Having read the two subsequent parts of the trilogy, it stands up pretty well (for me Toby's Room is the best and Noonday the weakest part).

The book serves as an introduction to the three main characters, all of whom meet as current or former art students at the Slade shortly before the Great War. Most of the story is told from the perspective of Paul Tarrant, a northerner and outsider who is struggling to find himself as an artist. His relationship with Elinor (who is more central to Toby's Room) starts platonically as Paul pursues a relationship with the married but separated life class model Teresa. The third member of the triangle Kit Neville is chasing Elinor, and is a more established artist.

When war breaks out Paul tries to enlist but fails his medical, and instead volunteers to help at a field hospital near Ypres. This part of the story is largely told through the letters he exchanges with Elinor.

Barker's ability to capture the war are familiar from her earlier Regeneration trilogy, and this one feels a little like a companion piece, with the focus on visual art rather thsn poetry.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,780 reviews1,458 followers
January 14, 2021
Definitely worth four stars, but at the start I had trouble. The prose, the author’s choice of words and what she did with the characters bothered me, but this was only at the start.

The story opens in London. It focuses upon a group of art students at the Slade School of Fine Art. It is the spring of 1914, before the start of the First World War. The characters are based on artists who did exist and attended the school. The name of their art professor, Henry Tonks, has not been changed. He was first a surgeon and returned to this during the war. The other characters are conglomerate figures. A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young British Artists and the Great War by David Boyd Haycock is a non-fiction group biography of the artists.*

The first section focuses upon the artists’ lives at the school, with the addition of love affairs. It is this part that didn’t work for me. Continue reading! The central emphasis of the book is about the artists'participation in the war, and it is here the book shines. One figure, not allowed to enlist, he had recently had pneumonia and could not stop coughing, was able to get a position with the Belgian Red Cross at a field hospital positioned right at the front, near Ypres.

I know exactly what it is in the book that I really like—the depiction of the fighting at the front and how different people emotionally reacted toward the war. Some want to take part. Others shy away from it. We see how German civilians living in England were treated. Prostitutes--how did the war affect them? We observe how love relationships are strained, some irrevocably altered never to be what they had been before. We observe how for one artist the war experience made him a better artist. Another used the war to attain high acclaim. A third absolutely refused to paint its horrors. It is the variety and breadth of the war’s impact that I feel is so well done.

The prose improves tenfold when the focus shifts to the war. As an example, I provide one quote:

“…and that’s where the sense of strangeness began. What I didn’t know, but it’s obvious enough when you think about it, it’s that companies in a column of marching men take synchronized breaks so at a given moment all the men fall out and sit by the roadside blending into the muddy ground. So for a time the road looks empty. I am not explaining this very well. I saw it happen, and it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I don’t know why. It’s the feeling of an empty desolate landscape that isn’t empty at all but is teeming with men.”

If you don’t like the book at the start, you absolutely must continue until it has shifted to the episodes depicting the war. What is drawn is grim but realistic. In moving prose, one observes the consequences of war, with an emphasis on the psychological.

The audiobook is narrated by Finlay Robertson, Juliet Prague, Eve Webster and Kieran Bew. I don’t know who read the different parts. In the beginning section a strong Northern dialect is used. Paul, the central protagonist positioned at the front near Ypres, is from Middlesbrough, North Yorkshire, England. I found the dialogue here more difficult to follow than in the later sections. Much of the war section is epistolary. The letters between Paul and his lover are well read and easy to follow. The narration, as a whole, I have given four stars. I thought it was very good--you get a feel for the characters. I don’t really see why four different narrators were necessary.

*Regeneration 3 stars
*Life Class 4 stars
*Toby's Room TBR
*Noonday TBR

Also read:
*A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young British Artists and the Great War by David Boyd Haycock

*I have been told by a friend at GR that Elinor Brooke is based upon Dora Carrington. Kit Neville is a mix of Mark Gertler and Christopher Nevinson and Paul Tarrant a mix of Stanley Spencer and Paul Nash. The italicized names are characters in this, Pat Barker’s book of historical fiction. The other names are the artists in David Boyd Haycock’s book of non-fiction.
Profile Image for Susan.
2,694 reviews595 followers
August 23, 2020
This is the first in a trilogy and begins at the Slade. There is a mix of real people, such as art teacher Tonks, and Lady Ottoline Morrell and fictional characters; although based on real people, or a mix of them. The beginning of this novel is set at the Slade and features a sort of love triangle between Elinor Brooke, Kit Neville and Paul Tarrant. Paul does not come from the usual Slade background and is unsure of himself and his talent; aware of his Midlands childhood and the fact that being an artist was not a career expected by those of his class. There is also the side story of Paul’s relationship with model Theresa and her violent ex-husband.

Of course, all such thoughts and minor tragedies are put aside by the war. Kit volunteers to drive an ambulance and, when he is not accepted to join up because of health issues, Paul also applies for the red cross. Only Elinor is left in London; aware that her painting is not seen as important with men dying in the trenches, but convinced by the importance of art, even in the midst of war. As their lives separate, the war both comes between, and overwhelms, them in different ways.

There is a visit to Ypres, where Elinor goes to visit Paul and the shelling that unfolds, while she is there, becomes a story that delights Lady Ottoline. Some of this novel is glorious, but it is a little uneven. I struggled with the beginning of this, but I would also like to read on and see what unfolds, for these characters and feel it is worth persevering with.
Profile Image for Trin.
1,841 reviews565 followers
August 4, 2008
I love the Regeneration trilogy so much, but I just can’t get into Barker’s other work. Her latest novel struck me as weirdly unfocused: the first half follows Paul through art school and various romantic assignations, including a quasi love triangle thing; I didn’t find it particularly compelling. Even after Paul goes to war as an ambulance driver and hospital worker, I couldn’t latch on—I was never at all invested or even particularly interested in Paul and Elinor as a couple, and I felt at times that I was reading the notes for the novel, instead of the finished thing. At one point, for example, Paul thinks about how much he’d come to love a fallen comrade, and all I could think was—what? When did that happen? We’re never shown, and I found it frustrating that so much of the action—the emotional action, even—was taking place off screen.

I don’t know. The Regeneration books are still really, incredibly good. This just...isn’t.
Profile Image for Elaine.
807 reviews372 followers
February 1, 2016
This is a Pat Barker two, not an overall two. Probably an overall three. No one writes World War I and that period as well as Barker, and in general her prose is smooth and compelling. The problem is that the War becomes such an outsize character in this book that nothing else really fully comes to life. The book's episodic structure makes it seem unfinished -- the story of Teresa that provides the narrative impetus for the first part of the book feels like it is left hanging, as does the vaguely sketched idea of a creative and amorous triangle. Finally, Elinor, the ostensible heroine, becomes impossibly unlikable as the War becomes more serious, which I don't think was
Barker's intention. I think Barker wanted to show the tensions between war and art, but in her world, war inevitably is so much more important and meaningful that Elinor just seems frivolous.
Profile Image for Joy D.
2,064 reviews239 followers
May 12, 2023
Paul, Elinor, and Kit are studying at the prestigious Slade School of Art in London in early 1914, just before England’s entry into WWI. They form an insular community comprised of models and artists, intensely focused on their art. Paul harbors doubts about his talent and feels he is not quite up to the task. Elinor is dedicated, turning down suitors in pursuit of her goal. Kit is recognized by the instructor for his natural artistic ability. The two men are attracted to Elinor, but she is not keen to get involved romantically, feeling it might derail her career. In mid-1914, the war begins, and the lives of these friends change. Paul is turned down for service but volunteers with the Red Cross in Belgium. Kit decides to draw scenes of the war but ends up working in a relatively safe position. Elinor tries to keep up with her art and ignore the impact of war.

Barker is skilled at portraying the turmoil and destruction caused by war, and how the lives of the characters are changed. Confronted by wartime conditions, they respond in their own ways. In the end, the reader will perceive personal growth in one of the main characters, regression in another, and denial of responsibility in the third. The scenes in the hospital and the shelling of the town are devastating.

The first half takes place at art school before the war, and it took me quite a while to get into it. The second focuses on the war experiences, and this is where the author hits her stride. It continues Barker’s theme of exploring the role of art during times of great upheaval, which she started in the Regeneration Trilogy. I am glad I did not give up on it during the first half. It seems that “Life Class” has a dual meaning in this story. It starts with the literal Life Class of art school where students create drawings of models and ends with the “life class” of real-world experience.
Profile Image for Inkspill.
410 reviews39 followers
October 16, 2021
How Pat Barker unfolds this story is stunning, I like how its seen from mostly two points of view, Paul Tarrant and Elinor Brooke – where from the start both are trying to pave a career to be artists, but their own particular situations and the social backdrop (set against the start of the war) effects this dream in different ways.

In Pat Barker’s telling, one theme that is highlighted throughout is sexual discrimination. For Elinor it’s getting very little support (as in none) from her family to pave a career that isn’t being married and being a mother. For Paul it’s volunteering as a nurse to help those wounded from the war. This is the heart that drives this story, and what makes it wonderful is that Pat Barker contrasts the bigger historical conflict of the war to their personal struggles of love, friendship and obtaining their dream. This is not an easy journey for either of them, Paul as a nurse sees the tragic irony of the value of life, and Elinor is trying not to be ground down by peer pressure and society’s stereotypical expectations of her.

In some way, this story has been told a thousand times before, but what makes this one just beautiful is the bond that Elinor and Paul develop, first as friends and then as casual lovers, where together and alone they are trying to make sense of themselves, the world around them and each other. It’s poetry in how Pat Barker has woven this tale, what makes the narrative breath-taking is that it’s heart-warming and at the same time tragic.

I listened to this unabridged version published by Penguin with multi narrators. I connected to the audiobook instantly, it was atmospheric and captured the mood of themes with a lot of tension and drama. Later I realised this is part of a trilogy, and am currently listening to the second book, Toby’s Room - Life Class #2 (Penguin) .
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,309 reviews120k followers
September 16, 2008
Life Class counterpoints the life lessons learned by a set of young English men and women first in an art school, the Slade, with bits of externality coming into the picture as the protagonist, Paul, becomes involved with a woman whose abusive ex succeeds in stalking and then attacking him. Later the war gathers up these lives and shuffles them about. Paul gets to see not only the horrors of life in a continent on fire, but is confronted with the unwillingness of the object of his affections, Elinor, to allow any aspect of that conflict to spoil her avidly pursued ignorance. There is much here about honesty, who is worth trusting, what makes good people, the role of art. Although one can recognize merit in the book, I did not care for it all that much. I found that in tone at least, it reminded me of many other English novels I have read in the last few years, without adding enough of its own self to distinguish it. It was an interesting read, with some payload about the WW I period in Britain among a certain class of people. But it was not compelling.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Laura.
100 reviews102 followers
August 9, 2014
4 1/2 stars. Pat Barker is such an amazing author. I didn't like this one quite as much as her award winning Regeneration trilogy, which has made it onto my favorite books ever list, but this one is wonderful too. It's quieter in a way, but her vivid, flawed characters, realistic historical details, and flawless dialogue are consistent. And her writing! The only author I can really compare her to is Edna St. Vincent Millay which...well, which probably makes no sense, since Millay was a poet rather than a writer of historical fiction novels. But there is so much honesty, so much savage beauty and grace and subtle power in Barker's work, in my mind that's the only comparison that fits.
Profile Image for Kirsten .
1,609 reviews259 followers
September 1, 2015
I read this book for two reasons: one, it had won the Booker Prize, and, two, I seem to love books set during the First World War.

This book was really wonderful. The language was so simple and elegant. The story too was also very enjoyable. The personal relationships, the view of the homefront, the description of life in a combat hospital of the era.

One of the best books I've read this year.
Profile Image for Tania.
796 reviews72 followers
September 25, 2020
It's not that this is a bad book, my problem with it was that I felt completely ambivalent towards all of the characters and so felt no connection to the story. Perhaps I would have liked it more another time.
Profile Image for May.
Author 11 books8,596 followers
August 7, 2023
Una gran novela de Pat Barker. Sigue siendo una referente para mí cuando hablamos de buena literatura inglesa.
Profile Image for Caroline.
Author 14 books36 followers
April 28, 2014
Life Class
I have a friend on GR to thank –Ta Laura – for pointing me in the direction of Life class as I was about to embark on reading Toby’s Room for a war and literature readalong. Did I realise it had some of the same characters as Life class she asked tactfully. In fact it really does help if you read Life class first. Although they can be read as standalone novels they work best together as a pair, rather like the brother and sister Toby and Elinore.
Life class is about the world of the Slade Art school in 1914 with the magisterial figure of Henry Tonks, who is drawn from real life. The first part is awash with the youthful preoccupations of the main characters about how you make a life for yourself, what is good art, who do you or should you love? It is a world overshadowed by the looming First World War and in the second part moves to Ypres and a hospital setting just behind the front lines. The questions with which the characters grapple become even more urgent in the second part; what are I doing or going to do with my life and how do I find reasons to carry on.
Here is an extract.

Profile Image for Jennifer.
748 reviews88 followers
June 27, 2009
I admire Pat Barker's writing and really enjoyed the Regeneration trilogy but I just couldn't connect with this book about art students and the different paths they take during WW1. The book asks if art is important during a time of war and while I think it is, Elinor (who seems to represent this side of the discussion by remaining committed to her classes and painting) distanced herself so far from a war that held her lover and brother in its grips that it was very hard to relate to her perspective.

Meanwhile, Barker's best writing seems to come out when she describes the makeshift "hospital" where Paul works and the gruesome reality of what war does to people physically and mentally. These were the most engaging chapters after he extricates himself from a somewhat vapid pre-war romance with a married woman. Barker doesn't shy away from the blood and battle wounds or from the reality of triage and tending to the people who have a chance at surviving.

At the end of the book, the fact that these two have any interest in each other was bewildering. So while there were pieces of this book that were compelling, the over all story just didn't work for me.
Profile Image for ·Karen·.
617 reviews767 followers
October 15, 2009
In Pat Barker's latest novel she returns to the horror of WWI, the setting of her highly acclaimed Regeneration trilogy.

The novel follows a trio of art students and their preoccupations with love and lust, which pale to insignificance as the momentum of war gathers pace. Paul and Kit both volunteer for Red Cross duty at the front, and process their experiences into their painting, whereas in contrast, Elinor joins the circle around Lady Ottoline Morrell, society hostess to pacifists, conscientious objectors and the Bloomsbury Group, and refuses to allow war any place in artistic endeavour. And the question of aesthetics is raised amongst the fictional artists: How much horror can or should be shown? Is horrific injury, gangrene, pain and suffering a suitable subject for art? Does that turn into propaganda?

Very satisfying mix of learning and the pleasures of a good read.
Profile Image for Koeeoaddi.
472 reviews2 followers
October 27, 2013
This was a good book, but not a great one. I'm not sure what was missing, but there is a distance in her writing that makes the characters unengaging and seem almost aloof. I much preferred the Regeneration books and Another World.

Having said that, I'm still glad I read it. She's one of the best writers I can think of for evoking the calamity that was the period between 1914 and 1918.
Profile Image for Elizabeth (Alaska).
1,319 reviews438 followers
September 4, 2020
I guess it pays to fully read the description, but I was prepared to read almost anything by Pat Barker. I picked up this book because one of my groups had a theme "art and artists". Do not be fooled. While the characters in this book are, indeed, artists, this is not a book about art and artists. Too bad. I think I would have liked it better if it were.

Barker didn't seem able to decide what she wanted to do. If set during the war, did she want the home front or the war? She didn't do either very well, although the war was the better of it. It was also a romance. Strangely, a romance where the woman wants to be independent or at least says she is opposed to marriage. Elinor says she is working (painting) but we never know how she feels about working at the time she's doing it. Why not? At the same time, her friendships with women are only referred to. She did have friendships and I think it would have been better for us to know more about them.

The sections where Paul goes near the front as an orderly are the better of this, but Barker fails to actually put us there. I have read extensively about this war. I have felt myself there in the trenches or in hospital or on the home front protesting. Barker stood aside looking on. She never allowed us to feel ourselves a part of anything.

There was so much wrong with this I'm just dissatisfied with it all around. I do love reading Pat Barker, but I honestly don't know whether I'll read the other two in the series or not. I've been told Toby's Room is better, but do I want to find out? This was just 2-stars for me.
Profile Image for Alison Hardtmann.
1,293 reviews2 followers
June 23, 2021
The whole world belonged to them because they were on their way to die.

In the spring of 1914, Paul struggles at Slade, the London art school, especially in life class. Coming from a northern working class background, he feels removed from the other students. But Elinor, one of the few women students welcomes him into her group of friends, which include Kit, a successful artist, and Teresa, one of the life models. All of their lives are turned upside down when war is declared and Kit and Paul sign on as ambulance drivers, Teresa disappears and Elinor stubbornly continues with her art.

This is the first book in a trilogy and, as such, I should almost wait until I've read the other two to say anything. Here, the most interesting character disappeared partway through and was never heard from again. I'm hoping she reappears because Teresa, scrappy Teresa with the troubled, dangerous husband and a determination to life her life, is far more interesting than Elinor, the upper class golden girl who attracts all the men. Still, this is a fascinating novel, describing everything from art school to how wounds were treated on and off the battleground (a lot of detail here, so be prepared). Barker's research may be exhaustive, but she deploys it in such a natural way. Looking forward to the next book in the trilogy.
Profile Image for Andria Potter.
Author 2 books59 followers
December 15, 2021
A lot of people seem to really like this book but while the writing style is fine I felt meh about the characters, and the story itself felt slow and boring to me. The book had promise but the execution was off. 2.5 ⭐
Profile Image for Sarah.
1,222 reviews35 followers
March 11, 2023
I loved the early sections in the art world of pre-WWI London, and could have read a whole book focusing on this. The early sections in the trenches were affecting but I never really bought the relationship between Elinor and Paul... which made the second half of the book a bit of a slog. My mum has a copy of the second book in the trilogy (Toby's Room) so I might give that a shot if I'm in the mood for some more historical fiction.
Profile Image for Tattered Cover Book Store.
720 reviews2,111 followers
November 1, 2008
Pat Barker returns to World War I in this lovely and heartbreaking novel about war and art. The action starts just prior to the Great War at the Slade, a prestigous art school in London. Neville loves Elinor, but Elinor doesn't want marriage or any of the trappings of a traditional life. She is a modern woman, who values art over most other things. Paul is their friend, and in love with Elinor, as well. While Paul is not as good a painter as the other two, he does have good looks and an honest soul to his credit. When the war breaks out, the men "must do something." While
they can't enlist in the army, they are taken into the Belgian Red Cross, where they work near the front lines, tending to the wounded. At this point, the novel takes a turn to the sublime...Barker's descriptions of the war, of the wounded, of the feelings of helplessness (at home & on the front) are perfect. There is a scene in which the town of Ypres is bombarded by shells, and I felt as if I were there, taking refuge under a flimsy wooden table. Barker is not only a masterful storyteller, but her writing is commanding and visceral. I highly recommend this novel, not only for readers fascinated with World War I, but for anyone who wants to read a taut love story hemmed in by a world gone mad.

Profile Image for Pamela.
1,355 reviews
September 6, 2020
Paul Tarrant is a student at Slade School of Art in 1914. As war approaches, he struggles to find direction with his art studies. He begins a relationship with an artists model while finding himself drawn to fellow student Elinor. Then war breaks out and Paul is swept into a new world, working in a field hospital in Belgium.

Barker writes with clean spare prose to create a vivid sense of time and place. Both the country house life of the long hot summer of 1914 and the barren wastes of the Belgian war zone are described clearly and precisely, conjuring up the scents and sounds of her settings. Art is a recurring theme - not only while the characters are students at the Slade, but throughout subsequent events. It serves to both connect and contrast the characters in their relationships with each other and with the war.

This is quite a short novel and so both plot and characters sometimes feel skipped over, with little touches of detail that don’t quite create the bigger picture. Nevertheless I found it readable and at times very powerful, especially in capturing the deeper psychological effects of war.
Profile Image for Izzy.
104 reviews
January 28, 2018
Disclaimer: I love Pat Barker. Regeneration is one of my favourite books so I had mixed hopes for this. Mixed as in, when one of your favourite authors writes someone new in the same genre, you’re always going to be comparing to what they’ve done previously, so I did approach this with slight trepidation (and after the disappointment of Philip Pullman’s latest offering which I had also recently read, how could I not?). However, I was not disappointed. Barker is a master of evoking the sights, the smells, the atmosphere of any scene she sets. Her characters are realistic; you connect with them through their flaws, you can sympathise without empathy. I’ve always been interested in World War One literature, but I genuinely think you wouldn’t have to have any prior knowledge or enthusiasm for the subject to enjoy this. It’s not as nuanced or intellectual as her previous offerings, but I think that’s because it is the first of a trilogy, so I am excited to read the next in the series, and I haven’t been excited about a book in a long time (here’s looking at you, A Little Life).
Profile Image for James Murphy.
982 reviews168 followers
January 17, 2020
Life Class is the 1st novel in a trilogy called...Life Class. I thought it unremarkable as a stand alone novel. I found in it less metaphor and little development of ideas, usually a prime inspiration for beginning a novel. However, Pat Barker is author of The Regeneration Trilogy which I admire. Its opening novel, Regeneration, also was a little bit disappointing, I thought, for the same reasons. But by the 3d Regeneration novel Barker had developed the parallel tracks of modern death in industrial war and that of death and ritual in primitive New Guinea. Her joining the 2 tracks in that 3d novel, The Ghost Road, was a moment of immense literary power for which she's been rightfully recognized.

Barker's latest novel was 2018's The Silence of the Girls, published 11 years after Life Class. Halfway through the earlier novel reference is made to the heroes of the Iliad being discomfited by the silence of the girls--Briseis and others--they're arguing over. Barker apparently had the theme in mind in 2007 when she had Elinor Brooke, the woman at the heart of Life Class, make reference to the silence of the girls. Elinor is a young Slade School of Art student at the outbreak of the Great War. The men of the novel have competed for her before they go to the fighting. They return damaged in body and spirit. Elinor, saddened at the end, engages in a dialogue Briseis might have had on the shore near Troy. Asked if she thinks we choose the people we love, she shakes her head. Further, she doubts that men can love women.

I wasn't that impressed with Life Class, but my experience with The Regeneration Trilogy leads me to believe Barker's going to build power in the 2d and 3d novels of Life Class. Also, I liked what might be the Briseis theme in Life Class. While there are no guarantees this is an underlying idea of Barker's, I'm looking forward to seeing what she's going to do with her material.
Profile Image for Lisa Wosik.
98 reviews8 followers
August 27, 2020
I really enjoyed this book set in WW1. And I didn’t think I would. I read it as I already had the 3rd book in the trilogy due to a Mumsnet giveaway. I originally downloaded a sample and couldn’t put it down. It tells the story of a complicated relationship between Elinor and Paul set against a backdrop of art school,moving on to the horrors of being a medic during WW1 for Paul. Elinor stays at home and they correspond via letters and a few fleeting encounters. This is not my usual thing but I enjoyed it. My only criticism is sometimes it wasn’t clear whose point of view was being told. Looking forward to reading the next in the trilogy, Toby’s Room.
Profile Image for Marne Wilson.
Author 2 books39 followers
September 2, 2023
I had the idea that this book would follow a number of students in the life class, but it actually focuses on just one, Paul Tarrant. I enjoyed reading this book, but it felt very derivative of a number of other WWI novels I’ve read. I also was unsatisfied with the ending, although I’m hopeful that Paul’s story continues in the next book in the series.
Profile Image for Ali.
1,242 reviews345 followers
May 12, 2013
Like Pat Barker’s hugely successful Regeneration trilogy ‘Life Class’ is set just before and during the First World War. As the novel opens Paul Tarrant an art student studying at the Slade School of art takes his place in the life drawing class tutored by the difficult Henry Tonks. Paul has a tough time under Tonks, leading him to even question his talent in his frustration. Paul and his artistic friends spend many evenings at the Café Royal, where he is introduced to Teresa, a beautiful troubled young woman, who Paul soon becomes involved with. In the background however, is Elinor Brooke another Slade student who is admired by both Paul and fellow artist Kit Neville. Paul is a lesser artist than Kit and Elinor, both of whom seem to be teetering on the brink of brilliance.
As tensions in Europe rise, Elinor invites both Paul and Kit to spend some time with her family at their home, but Elinor is reticent of getting too involved with Kit who wants to marry her, and knows that Paul is also attracted to her – but she keeps them both at arm’s length. Elinor is a modern young woman, shockingly short haired she is unconventional in many ways and doesn’t dream of the traditional role of wife and mother that other young women content themselves with. For Elinior is serious about her art, and anxious not to end up like her mother and sister. When war comes Elinor wants only to continue with her art, she prefers to ignore the war as much as possible, despite her brother Toby enlisting and going off to France.
With the outbreak of hostilities, and unable to serve in the army, both Paul and Kit Neville find themselves in Belgium, as Red Cross volunteers. Here Paul works with men dreadfully injured, many of whom don’t survive their injuries. Paul and the people he works alongside have an impossible task – by the time the injured arrive at their station their wounds are already infected – they are in fact fighting their own losing battle. There is a soldier so desperate he tries to shoot himself, failing to kill himself, he is patched up, so that later he can be shot for desertion. A frustrated and enraged surgeon kicks an amputated limb across the operating room. These are not pretty images, but they are powerful. Pat Barker’s writing about World War I is uncompromising and unforgettable.
“But then, that's the question. Should you even pause to consider your own reactions? These men suffer so much more than he does, more than he can imagine. In the face of their suffering, isn't it self-indulgent to think about his own feelings? He has nobody to talk to about such things and blunders his way through as best he can. If you feel nothing -this is what he comes back to time and time again -you might just as well be a machine, and machines aren't very good at caring for people. There's something machine-like about a lot of the professional nurses here. Even Sister Byrd, whom he admires, he looks at her sometimes and sees an automaton. Well, lucky for her, perhaps. It's probably more efficient to be like that. Certainly less painful.”
When new recruit Lewis arrives, without the matter of fact cynicism that Paul has acquired, he is accommodated in Paul’s hut, and therefore under his wing. Paul finds this responsibility irritating, and the sharing of his space difficult – wanting somewhere where he could at least theoretically paint on his days off. Paul rents a room in the small nearby town, and invites Elinor to stay, for a short time. Here their relationship naturally moves on a pace. However the war encroaches and Elinor must leave suddenly – and return to the safety of England.
The longer Paul stays in Belgium, tending to the horribly injured, later driving ambulances – leaving injured men he cannot accommodate in the road, even dealing with piles of dead bodies – the more of himself he seems to lose. The distance between he and Elinor seems greater as her letters become less frequent, and the world he once inhabited seems a long way away. Back in London Elinor has joined a group of pacifists and conscientious objectors led by society hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell. As letters pass between the two lovers it becomes apparent that neither can fully understand the world of the other.
After the bombardment of Ypres, Paul begins to see the world very differently, on his return to London, Paul must determine whether his experiences have changed him completely – and where, if anywhere, he now fits.
I found Life Class a compelling and powerful novel, Pat Barkers descriptions of injured men, and the bombardment of Ypres transport the reader to Belgium in the early days of World War I. The novel’s opening in the months before the outbreak of war, the frivolity, flirting and possibilities that life offers these young people contrast starkly with what comes later. I now cannot wait to read the sequel Toby’s Room which I have on my kindle.
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