Life Class

Life Class is a quiet book, but don’t be fooled. From the small circle of friends and the short span of years on which Pat Barker hangs her tale, she builds and wrecks a universe.

Barker was named one of the best young British novelists by the literary magazine Granta in 1983, on a list that included Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and Julian Barnes. She went on to win the Booker Prize in 1995 for Ghost Road, the final in a trio of World War l books known as the Regeneration Trilogy. With Life Class, her 11th novel, she’s back again in the dreary winter, slow spring, and hot and humid summer of 1914, before the start of the war. Then the fighting begins and Barker’s in her element, showing the horror and madness.

As the book opens, Paul Tarrant is a fish out of water at the Slade, a London art school. His wan attempts at painting have been savaged by Henry Tonks, the terrifying (and real-life) instructor who reigned over the famed academy. Elinor Brooke is Tonks’s prized pupil, a modern girl who, with her short-cropped hair, signals her rebellion. When Paul bolts from class one afternoon, he catches Elinor’s fancy. She reels him into her social scene, a round of cafes and dinners and parties. Here’s Paul, threading his way through the Cafe Royal for his first rendezvous with Elinor.

People glanced up at him as he passed, their faces illuminated by the small candles that flickered on every table. Everywhere, moist lips, glimpses of red, wet tongues, gleaming white teeth. How sleek and glossy they all were compared to the creatures who lived in the streets around his lodgings, scurrying about in their soot-laden drizzle, the women so tightly-wrapped they seemed to be bundles of clothes walking. This was another England and, passing between the two, he was aware of a moment’s dislocation, not unlike vertigo.

We’re told Paul’s problem isn’t technique — he’s a gifted artist — but rather his inability to decide what he wants to see. He sees with Barker’s eyes: “London was drab, full of mud-colored people. As the night closed in and the street lamps were lit, their painted blue globes seemed not so much to shed light as to make darkness visible.”

With descriptions like this, so visceral and, well, painterly, you want to just shake him and shout “Paint that, exactly that, what you just told us you see!”

What Paul sees most of all, it turns out, is Elinor. She’s well bred, beautiful, accomplished, and a flirt — notorious for giving “the treatment” to men and women alike, a trick by which she creates an aura of intimacy and desire. She quickly plays Paul off against Kit Neville, a former Slade student now becoming a famous painter. The love triangle forms and persists. No matter that Paul falls for Teresa, one of the Slade’s life models, and has a torrid affair. It’s his relationship with Elinor and Neville that really matters.

When war breaks out, Barker shifts Paul to the front. Refused for military service for health reasons, he works at a hospital as an orderly. Even here, Barker continues the narrative’s close focus. She doesn’t go for the birds-eye view — no sweeping descriptions of war-torn France, no scene-setting pyrotechnics. Instead she plays the short ball, leaving us horrified by the daily details of what Paul sees: shell-shocked men, multiple amputations, an enraged doctor who kicks a severed foot across the room, a mother who quietly smothers her hideously wounded son. It builds up and trickles down, detail by pitiless detail, through Paul’s numbed gaze.

On a town street where ambulances roar by, the cries of the wounded “torn out of them by every bump and hollow in the road,” Paul wonders only briefly why the shopkeepers and passersby don’t react: “It’s the hardest thing in the world to go on being aware of someone else’s pain. He couldn’t do it, so he was in no position to criticize others who couldn’t, either.”

Elinor, meanwhile, writes letters to Paul from London. She describes a nearly unchanged life, the same old painting classes, the same old cafes, life among many of the same old people. After a chance meeting, she drifts into the wartime Bloomsbury salon of Lady Ottoline Morrell. Then Elinor tricks her way through the bureaucratic layers and finds her way to Paul’s hospital in France.

Here, when the old and the new worlds meet, Barker takes a step back and gives us a wider view. Paul and Elinor go out to dinner on the night the town is shelled. Reluctant at first to believe what’s happening, they escape the restaurant and hide until dawn. When they emerge, Barker treats us to a rare panorama.

Buildings still burned, the flames licking blackened timbers. Some of the house fronts had been ripped off and all the little private things laid bare: wallpaper, counterpanes, chamber pots, sofas, a crucifix hanging askew above a bed, a little girl’s doll. It was indecent.

The war may have blotted all thought of painting from our minds, but for Paul, it’s an artistic salvation. In the aftermath of war, he makes paintings so powerful and raw, so awful in their honesty, he knows it will be years before they can be shown.

Life Class blurs fact and fiction — Barker’s list of thanks and references is two pages long — and American readers not well versed in British history may be hard pressed to tell the difference. But that hardly matters. The real core of the story is how people are changed by what they see, how they behave and what they choose. In this finely wrought and devastating novel, Barker gives, in the truest sense, a life class.