Author: Pat Barker
Rating: * * * * *
Like Barker’s acclaimed Regeneration trilogy, Life Class focuses on WWI. Paul Tarrant is a would-be painter studying at a prestigious art school in London, in the summer of 1914. Tangled up in a complicated affair with a married woman, he finally forms a relationship with the bewitching Elinor Brooke, the true object of his affections. Within a week, England is at war.
Parts of the novel make for harrowing reading. As a Red Cross volunteer, Paul witnesses the unforgivable horrors of the front line first hand. Barker pulls no punches when describing the wounds inflicted on soldiers: the fragility of flesh is made disturbingly explicit.
Barker, in this respect, is a cut above her contemporaries. She unflinchingly describes the unimaginable, in the most visceral language, yet with the utmost sensitivity. And while the brutality is consistently emphasised (‘Everything stinks: creosote, bleach, disinfectant, soil, blood, gangrene’), the emotional consequences of conflict are also made clear as Paul and Elinor struggle to reconcile their golden days at art school in war-torn Belgium.
There is no denying the intensity of the subject matter, but the power of Barker’s prose makes for a captivating and deeply affecting read.