Life Class

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From the Booker Prize–winning author of The Regeneration Trilogy, an acknowledged masterpiece of modern fiction, Life Class is an exceptional new novel of artists and lovers caught in the maelstrom of the Great War.
It is the spring of 1914 and a group of young students have gathered in an art studio for a life-drawing class. Paul Tarrant and Elinor Brooke are two parts of an intriguing love triangle and, in the first days of war, they turn to each other. As spring turns to ...

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Overview

From the Booker Prize–winning author of The Regeneration Trilogy, an acknowledged masterpiece of modern fiction, Life Class is an exceptional new novel of artists and lovers caught in the maelstrom of the Great War.
It is the spring of 1914 and a group of young students have gathered in an art studio for a life-drawing class. Paul Tarrant and Elinor Brooke are two parts of an intriguing love triangle and, in the first days of war, they turn to each other. As spring turns to summer, Paul volunteers for the Belgian Red Cross and tends to wounded, dying soldiers from the front line. By the time he returns, Paul must confront the fact that life and love will never be the same for him again.
In Life Class, Pat Barker returns to her most renowned subject: the human devastation and psychic damage wrought by World War One on all levels of British society. Her skill in relaying the harrowing experience of modern warfare is matched by the depth of insight she brings to the experience of love and the morality of art in a time of war. Life Class is one of her genuine masterpieces.

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Editorial Reviews

Michiko Kakutani
Life Class represents her best work since The Ghost Road, for which she received the 1995 Booker Prize…As she did in her "Regeneration" trilogy, Ms. Barker conjures up the hellish terrors of the war and its fallout with meticulous precision. Grievously injured soldiers crying out for morphine that does not exist; field surgeons tossing bits of damaged flesh into buckets; civilians scurrying for safety as bombs torpedo their homes and gardens; columns of rain-drenched men marching toward the front in "gleaming capes and helmets, like mechanical mushrooms"—such images and the ineradicable memory of these sights are captured with unsparing clarity by Ms. Barker in these pages, as are the less visible scars they leave on the psyches of soldiers, doctors and witnesses alike.
—The New York Times
Ron Charles
Barker has constructed this novel with a daringly languid plot. That the story remains so engaging is a testament to her elegant style and psychological acuity…The lessons in Life Class aren't easy, but they're deeply affecting and necessary.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Set initially in 1914 before the start of WWI, Barker's first novel since 2004's Double Vision tells the story of two students at London's Slade School of Fine Art, Paul Tarrant and Elinor Brooke, along with that of Kit Neville, a promising young painter. Paul begins an affair with Teresa Halliday, a troubled artist's model, and Kit woos Elinor, but both men rush off to the Continent at the outset of hostilities to work with the wounded. The author's unflinching eye for detail and her supple prose create an undeniably powerful narrative, but her skills cannot compensate for a weak plot. What appear to be critical story lines (Paul's affair with Teresa, Kit's painting career) are almost abandoned once Paul and Elinor become lovers. And the book's main theme-war's impact on art and love-pales in comparison with the tragic experiences of those who fight and die in the conflict. Despite riveting passages depicting the waste and horror of WWI, this effort falls short of the standard set by Barker's magisterial Regeneration trilogy, the last of which, The Ghost Road, won the Booker Prize. (Jan.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Barker returns to the World War I setting of her award-winning Regeneration trilogy (Regeneration; The Eye in the Door; and The Ghost Road). It's the spring of 1914, and Paul Tarrant, a working-class lad from the North of England, is enrolled at London's Slade School of Art. He's attracted to a fellow student, the beautiful and self-contained Elinor Brooke, who has also drawn the romantic attentions of Kit Neville, a recent Slade graduate and rising star on the art scene. Instead of pursuing Elinor, Paul embarks on an affair with Teresa, an artist's model with an abusive, jealous husband. When war breaks out, Paul and Kit volunteer for the Belgian Red Cross, while Elinor remains in London to focus on her painting. Although Barker aims to make a profound statement about the role of art in a time of war, her book sadly lacks the devastating power and beauty of the Regeneration trilogy. Thinly drawn characters appear and disappear for no apparent reason; there are few scenes about the actual process of making art, an odd omission; and Barker half-heartedly throws in psychological suspense that goes nowhere. All in all, a muddle. Buy only for larger fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ9/15/07.]
—Wilda Williams

School Library Journal

Set initially in 1914 before the start of WWI, Barker's first novel since 2004's Double Vision tells the story of two students at London's Slade School of Fine Art, Paul Tarrant and Elinor Brooke, along with that of Kit Neville, a promising young painter. Paul begins an affair with Teresa Halliday, a troubled artist's model, and Kit woos Elinor, but both men rush off to the Continent at the outset of hostilities to work with the wounded. The author's unflinching eye for detail and her supple prose create an undeniably powerful narrative, but her skills cannot compensate for a weak plot. What appear to be critical story lines (Paul's affair with Teresa, Kit's painting career) are almost abandoned once Paul and Elinor become lovers. And the book's main theme-war's impact on art and love-pales in comparison with the tragic experiences of those who fight and die in the conflict. Despite riveting passages depicting the waste and horror of WWI, this effort falls short of the standard set by Barker's magisterial Regeneration trilogy, the last of which, The Ghost Road, won the Booker Prize. (Jan.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
The Booker Prize-winning British author (Double Vision, 2003, etc.) returns to the subject of World War I, treated so memorably in her celebrated Regeneration trilogy. This is a story of hopeful ambitions and relationships redirected and reshaped by a climate of catastrophic change. Early chapters set in London chart the experiences of Paul Tarrant, in flight from his youth spent in the working-class north and his family's unhappiness, studying at the Slade Gallery, where-a demanding professor harshly implies-Paul will not transform himself into an artist. Parallel disappointments and rejections accumulate quickly. In a scene reminiscent of Dostoevsky, Paul attempts to protect a drunken teenaged girl from a well-dressed older man who appears to be stalking her-and cannot tell whether he succeeds. Paul fails to connect romantically with his virginal classmate Elinor Brooke, and a brief sexual relationship with artist's model Teresa Halliday, the victim of her abusive estranged husband, also goes awry. Then, the War-hitherto a threatening presence rumbling in the background-takes Paul and another Slade classmate, wealthy, supremely confident Kit Neville, to Belgium, where Paul labors as an orderly in a battlefield "hospital" in Ypres, two miles from the front. Exchanges of letters between Paul and Elinor, as well as her harrowing "visit" to Ypres during which she surrenders her closely guarded virginity, and barely escapes a violent bombing attack, render the horrors of combat with (Barker's trademark) meticulously researched detail and piercing clarity. Secondary characters' experiences likewise amplify into lucid microcosms of the global cataclysm that shadows every individual life. AndBarker pulls strings expertly, leading to a heart-wrenching anti-resolution perfectly expressed by Elinor's guilty, self-lacerating rejection of Paul's commitment to serve and sacrifice. Mature, unsentimental and searching. One of this excellent writer's finest books. Agent: Gillon Aitken/Gillon Aitken Associates Ltd
From the Publisher
“Beautiful and evocative . . . a coming-of-age story that transcends the individual and gestures to the fate of a generation.” —PeopleLife Class possesses organic power and narrative sweep. . . . Barker conjures up the hellish terrors of the war and its fallout with meticulous precision.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times“Here, as in her best fiction, Barker unveils psychologically rich characters. . . and resists the trappings of a neat love story, reminding us once again that in art and life we remain infinitely mysterious.” —San Francisco Chronicle“A book so alive from page to page that it's difficult to put down.” —Seattle Times
The Barnes & Noble Review
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 I 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. --Veronique de Turenne

Veronique de Turenne is a Los Angeles–based journalist, essayist, and playwright. Her literary criticism appears on NPR and in major American newspapers.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781602833579
  • Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/8/2008
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged Edition
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 6.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Pat Barker
Pat Barker is the author of 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 lives in England.

Biography

It took Pat Barker ten years to find a publisher for her first novel, but when Union Street was released in 1982, critical reaction was extremely positive. A gritty tale set in the 1970s, the book recounts the interconnected stories of seven women living in an industrial town in northern England. Barker, a former teacher of history and politics, was recognized as a formidable, if late-blooming talent. In its review, The New York Times mused, "Pat Barker gives the sense of a writer who has enormous power that she has scarcely had to tap to write a first-rate first novel." The literati agreed. The following year, Barker appeared on Granta magazine's list of the 20 Best Young British Novelists alongside such future luminaries as Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and Ian McEwan.

Although Barker received critical praise for her early books, tales that limned the bleak lives of working class Britons, she struck her most resonant chord with the Regeneration Trilogy, a series of novels based on the experiences of shell-shocked WWI soldiers (including poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen) at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland. The first novel in the trilogy, the splendid Regeneration, was named by The New York Times as one of the four best books of 1991; its sequel, The Eye in the Door, won the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1993; and the concluding novel, The Ghost Road, was awarded the 1995 Booker Prize for Fiction.

Certainly, Barker has explored the nuances of contemporary civilian life in subsequent novels; but the specter of war, especially the Great War, seems always to loom over her writing. One explanation is that the grandfather who raised her fought in the trenches in France. Although he seldom spoke about the war, it came to haunt him in his later life. Even unvoiced, his wartime experiences became part of her childhood "stock of memories."

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    1. Hometown:
      Durham, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      May 8, 1943
    2. Place of Birth:
      Thornaby-on-Tees, England
    1. Education:
      London School of Economics; Durham University

Read an Excerpt

1

They’d been drawing for over half an hour. There was no sound except for the slurring of pencils on Michelet paper or the barely perceptible squeak of charcoal. At the center of the circle of students, close to the dais, a stove cast a barred red light onto the floor. The smell of burning coke mingled with other smells: sweat, hot cloth, cigar and tobacco smoke. Now and again you could hear the soft pop of lips inhaling and another plume of blue smoke would rise to join the pall that hung over the whole room.

Nobody spoke. You were not allowed to talk in the life class. In the Antiques Room, where they spent the mornings copying from casts of Classical and Renaissance sculpture, talking was permitted, and the students—a few of the women, in particular—chattered nonstop. Here, apart from the naked woman on the dais, the atmosphere was not unlike a men’s club. The women students had their own separate life class somewhere on the lower floor. Even the Slade, scandalously modern in most respects, segregated the sexes when the naked human body was on display.

Paul Tarrant, sitting on the back row, as far away from the stove as he could get, coughed discreetly into his handkerchief. He was still struggling to throw off the bronchitis that had plagued him all winter and the fumes irritated his lungs. He’d finished his drawing, or at least he’d reached the point where he knew that further work would only make matters worse. He leaned back and contemplated the page. Not one of his better efforts.

He knew, without turning to look, that Professor Tonks had entered the room. It was always like this with Tonks, the quiet entry. He seemed to insinuate himself into the room. You knew he’d arrived only when you saw the students sitting opposite straighten their shoulders or bend more anxiously over their drawings. Tonks was a dark planet whose presence could be deduced only by a deviation in the orbit of other bodies.

Paul risked a sidelong glance. Tonks, bent at the shoulders like a butcher’s hook, was scrutinizing a student’s drawing. He said something, too low to be heard. The student mumbled a reply and Tonks moved on. Another student, then another. He was working his way along the back row, passing quickly from drawing to drawing. Sugden brought him to a halt. Sugden was hopeless, among the worst in the class. Tonks always spent more time on the weaker students, which indicated a kindly disposition, perhaps, or would have done had he not left so many of them in tatters.

So far his progress had been quiet, but now suddenly he raised his voice.

“For God’s sake, man, look at that arm. It’s got no more bones in it than a sausage. Your pencil’s blunt, your easel’s wobbly, you’re working in your own light, and you seem to have no grasp of human anatomy at all. What is the point?”

Many of Tonks’s strictures related to the students’ ignorance of anatomy. “Is it a blancmange?” had been one of his comments on Paul’s early efforts. Tonks had trained as a surgeon and taught anatomy to medical students before Professor Browne invited him to join the staff at the Slade. His eye, honed in the dissecting room and the theater, detected every failure to convey what lay beneath the skin. “Look for the line,” he would say again and again. “Drawing is an explication of the form.” It was one of the catchphrases Slade students sometimes chanted to each other. Along with: “I thy God am a jealous God. Thou shalt have none other Tonks but me.”

There was no getting round Tonks’s opinion of your work. Tonks was the Slade.

Paul looked at his drawing. If he’d been dissatisfied before he was dismayed now. As Tonks drew closer, his drawing became mysteriously weaker. Not only had he failed to “explicate the form,” but he’d also tried to cover up the failure with all the techniques he’d learned before coming to the Slade: shading, cross–hatching, variations in tone, even, now and then, a little discreet smudging of the line. In the process, he’d produced the kind of drawing that at school—and even, later, in night classes—had evoked oohs and ahs of admiration. Once, not so long ago, he’d have been pleased with this work; now, he saw its deficiencies only too clearly. Not only was the drawing bad, it was bad in exactly the way Tonks most despised. More than just a failure, it was a dishonest failure.

He took a deep breath. A second later Tonks’s shadow fell across the page, though he immediately moved a little to one side so that the full awfulness could be revealed. A long pause. Then he said conversationally, as if he were really interested in the answer, “Is that really the best you can do?”

“Yes.”

“Then why do it?”

Why indeed? Paul made no reply and after a moment Tonks moved on. At last, from somewhere, a rush of anger. “If I knew how to draw I wouldn’t need to be here at all, would I?”

He’d shouted, though he hadn’t meant to. All around people were turning to stare at him. Without giving Tonks a chance to reply, he threw down his pencil and walked out.

The corridor, empty between classes, stretched ahead of him. Its walls seemed to throb with his anger. The heat of it kept him going all the way to the main entrance and out into the quad. There he stopped and looked around him. What was he doing, storming out like that in the middle of a session? It was asking for trouble. And yet he knew he couldn’t go back. Students were sitting in small circles on the grass, laughing and talking, but they were mainly medical students enjoying a break between lectures, and there was nobody he knew. He threaded his way between the groups and out through the iron gates into Gower Street. At first he started to walk towards Russell Square, the nearest green space, but that wasn’t far enough. He needed to get right away, to think about his future in unfamiliar surroundings, because although, in one sense, his spat with Tonks had been relatively trivial, he felt that it marked a crisis in his career.

If you could call it a career.

*

He’d been walking round and round the lake for over an hour. His shadow, hardly visible when he first entered the park, now trotted at his heels like a stunted child. Round and round the problem went: no talent, wasting my time, better leave now and get a job. Or would it be more sensible to wait till the end of the year? He’d always intended to spend two years at the Slade and it seemed a bit feeble to leave before the first year was over, but then what was the point of continuing when his work not only failed to improve but actually seemed to deteriorate from week to week? It wasn’t as if he had unlimited money. He had a legacy from his grandmother, a slum landlord of quite astonishing rapacity who, by skimping on repairs and bringing up her large family on bread and scrape, had salted away a great deal of money in the box under her bed. What would her advice have been?

Have nowt to do with nancy–boy stuff like art, there’s no money in that, and if you’ve got tangled up in it, lad, get out as fast as you can.

She’d been horrified when he went to work as an orderly in a hospital; real men earned their living by their own sweat and blood.

This was getting him nowhere. He found a bench and sat down, feeling the heat heavy on his shoulder blades. Craning his neck, he looked up at the tops of the trees, dark against the pulsing sun. Everything was flooded in lemony light. After a while he straightened up and looked about him, and it was then that he became aware of the girl on the other side of the lake.

A young girl, still with the childish blondeness that rarely survives into adult life, was wandering along the waterside. She was about fifteen, dressed in the shabby, respectable clothes of a maid, her only ornament a bunch of purple velvet violets pinned to the crown of her black straw hat. Sent into service, he guessed, away from her own overcrowded home. Girls that age are not easily accommodated in two–bedroomed houses, parents needing privacy, adolescent brothers curious, younger children sleeping four to a bed. This would be her afternoon off.

He tracked her with his eyes. A few paces further on she stopped, standing at the water’s edge looking down into the depths. Thinking they were going to be fed, swans, geese, and ducks set off towards her from all parts of the lake, so that the slim, gray figure quickly became the focal point of thirty or more converging lines. There was something odd about her and at first he couldn’t think what it was, but then he noticed that the buttons on her blouse had been done up in the wrong sequence. There was a glimpse of what might have been bare flesh between the edge of her blouse and her skirt. He kept expecting her to pull her shawl more closely round her or turn away and put herself to rights. But she did neither. Instead she stumbled a few feet further along, then stopped again, the shadows of rippling water playing over her face and neck.

She was swaying on her feet. At first he thought nothing of it, but then it happened again, and again. It came to him in a flash. Incredibly, this fresh–faced, innocent–looking girl was drunk. He looked up and down the path to see if she was alone and there, about twenty yards behind, stood a portly, middle–aged man watching her. Ah, authority. Probably the man was her employer—he was too well–dressed to be her father—but then, if he had a legitimate reason to be interested in her, why did he not approach and take control of the situation? Instead of strolling along at that loitering, predatory pace, his eyes fixed on her back. No, he was nothing to do with her—unless of course he was the man responsible for her condition. That, or he’d noticed the state she was in and recognized easy pickings when he saw them.

Bastard. All Paul’s long frustration in the life class—a frustration which could never be vented on Professor Tonks because he respected the man too much—boiled over into hatred of this man with his florid cheeks and his expensive suit and his silver–topped cane. He jumped up and began striding along the path, meaning to cut them off before they reached the gate.

The sun, past its height, had begun to throw long bluish shadows across the grass. Paul’s heels rang out on the pavement as he half walked, half ran round the head of the lake. He felt vigorous, clear. All the disappointments and complexities of the past few months had dropped away. He drew level with the girl, who had once more paused and was gazing out over the lake. A few yards away from her the geese were beginning to come ashore. Big, webbed yellow feet made puddles of wet on the dusty path as they lurched towards her, open beaks hissing. Startled, she took off her shawl and flapped it at them until at last, honking and hissing, they flopped, one by one, into the water again.

Now that Paul was closer he could see that her hair had slipped loose from the pins at the nape of her neck and straggled down her back. The blouse was badly torn, it must have been ripped off her back. Looking down, he saw that only one foot had a stocking on; the other was thrust bare into a down–at–heel shoe. He looked at the slim, naked ankle and felt a tweak of lust that hardly broke the surface of his consciousness before it was transmuted into anger. Who had done this to her? She was such a child. He was afraid to startle her by speaking to her and, anyway, she might well misconstrue his intentions.

The middle–aged man had stopped a few yards away and was gazing at him with obvious resentment. Paul turned to stare at him. Medium height, heavily built, bulky about the shoulders and chest, but a lot of that was flab. His trouser buttons strained to accommodate his postprandial belly. His eyes kept sliding away from Paul to the girl and back again. At last he stepped to one side, ostentatiously allowing Paul plenty of room to pass. Paul held his ground.

Meanwhile, the girl tried to move on, but staggered and almost fell. She seemed disorientated now and after standing for a moment simply flopped down on the path. With a glance at Paul the man moved towards her. Paul stepped forward to cut him off.

“What do you want?” the man said.

A Yorkshire accent? “Are you responsible for this?”

“What?”

“This.”

“I never saw her before in my life.” Grayish–green eyes, the color of infected phlegm. “I was going to put her in a cab and send her back to her family.”

“ ’Course you were.”

“Do you have a better idea?”

“We could take her to the police station.”

“Oh, I doubt if she’d thank you for that.”

“Let’s ask her, shall we?”

The man leaned forward in a fug of port–wine breath. “Look, piss off, will you? I saw her first.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“It’s not your business.” A hiss the geese would have been proud of. “For God’s sake, look at her. Don’t you think you’re closing the stable door after the horse’s bolted?”

“And a slice off a cut cake won’t be missed. What a fund of homely northern wisdom you are.”

Gooseberry–green eyes swelled to bursting. A purpling of pendulous cheeks, then Paul caught a flash of silver from the upraised cane. He raised his arm to break the blow and pain jolted from his forearm into his shoulder. Now he had his excuse, his legitimate reason. He twisted the cane out of the other’s hand and brought it crashing down onto his shoulders, once, twice, three times, and then he lost count. There was no reason ever to stop, he’d never felt such joy, strength seemed to flow into him from the sky. But a minute later, as the man turned away, presenting only his bowed shoulders to the blows, Paul started to recover himself. In a final burst of exhilaration, he sent the cane whirling in a broad arc over the lake, its silver knob flashing in the sun.

“Fetch!” he shouted, feeling his spit fly. “Go on, boy, fetch!”

The cane plopped and sank. Concentric rings of ripples laced with foam spread out over the surface of the water. Its owner turned to face Paul, goosegog eyes red veined with rage. “Do you know how much that cost?”

“More than the girl, I’ll bet.”

From the Hardcover edition.

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Introduction

A haunting tribute to the experience of poet Siegfried Sassoon during the Great War, Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy established her as one of the foremost fiction writers of our time, culminating in The Ghost Road, the Booker Prize—winning novel hailed by the New York Times as a masterwork. Now she returns to the battlefields of World War I in a dramatic portrait of aspiring artists who inhabited pre-war London before being forced to confront the brutal realities of combat on the Continent. At once a love story and a meditation on the morality of art in a time of calamity, Life Class evokes a world where heart and soul cannot be reconciled by physical survival alone.

The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended to enhance your reading of Pat Barker’s Life Class. We hope they will enrich your experience of this mesmerizing novel.

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Foreword

1. What do the novel’s opening scenes at the Slade evoke? What motivations collide (and coincide) among the students, Tonks, and the model?

2. How did your perception of Paul evolve throughout Life Class? How does his temperament differ from Kit’s?

3. Discuss the varying quests presented by the novel’s lovers. What are Paul, Kit, Elinor, and Teresa seeking in the initial chapters? How do their notions of fulfillment speak to the version of early twentieth–century London that is presented in Life Class?

4. Did you believe Teresa’s statements about Halliday, or were you as skeptical as Paul? Is there any way she could have escaped her painful past?

5. What changes when the novel’s point of view shifts to Elinor’s in chapter twelve? What are the greatest contrasts between the way she sees the world and the way she sees her place in it?

6. How would you characterize Elinor’s relationship with her parents? How do they respond to her defiant acts, such as the cutting of her hair? To what degree is she shaped by her siblings’ lives?

7. On their bicycle ride through the cemetery (chapter twelve), Elinor wonders about the “real” relationships that existed behind the artificial lives of those buried there. In the same scene, Kit thinks to himself that Paul is mistaken about seeing the “real” England. Where do the boundaries of real life and façade lie for these three characters? Do they use art as a means for capturing or defying reality?

8. How is sexuality used throughout the novel? Where does the body intersect with an emotional world as LifeClass progresses? What did Elinor’s virginity signify to her? How does the memory of Paul’s mother affect his ability to form relationships?

9. What remains unspoken in Paul and Elinor’s letters? What versions of themselves are they able portray on paper? What has been lost and gained by the use of e–mail between couples separated by warfare?

10. How is the characters’ art described in the aftermath of Ypres? How do their images reflect the literary images created by Pat Barker’s words?

11. What is Tonks attempting to teach his students? To what extent can an artist be taught?

12. How were you affected by the novel’s acknowledgments section, which describes the real–life Henry Tonks and the tandem between life drawings in medical modes and for art’s sake? What does fiction lend to the process of understanding significant chapters in history? What can novelists achieve that journalists can’t, in terms of evoking history?

13. Discuss the novel’s title. How does the notion of class as an aspect of social hierarchy apply to the characters? In terms of a class designed for instruction, what did Paul, Elinor, and Kit learn about the nature of life? How were they tested over their “lessons”? What were the most significant Life Classes you endured?

14. Which historical aspects of Life Class were most surprising to you? How did you react to the concept of a drawing class segregated by gender, or the fact that divorce criteria differed between husbands and wives? Had you been aware of the internment of Germans in Great Britain, exemplified in Catherine Stein’s story?

15. What emotional threads are woven throughout the Regeneration Trilogy and Life Class? In terms of power or essence, does the response of a visual artist differ from that of a poet in the face of wartime atrocity?

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Reading Group Guide

1. What do the novel's opening scenes at the Slade evoke? What motivations collide (and coincide) among the students, Tonks, and the model?

2. How did your perception of Paul evolve throughout Life Class? How does his temperament differ from Kit's?

3. Discuss the varying quests presented by the novel's lovers. What are Paul, Kit, Elinor, and Teresa seeking in the initial chapters? How do their notions of fulfillment speak to the version of early twentieth-century London that is presented in Life Class?

4. Did you believe Teresa's statements about Halliday, or were you as skeptical as Paul? Is there any way she could have escaped her painful past?

5. What changes when the novel's point of view shifts to Elinor's in chapter twelve? What are the greatest contrasts between the way she sees the world and the way she sees her place in it?

6. How would you characterize Elinor's relationship with her parents? How do they respond to her defiant acts, such as the cutting of her hair? To what degree is she shaped by her siblings' lives?

7. On their bicycle ride through the cemetery (chapter twelve), Elinor wonders about the “real” relationships that existed behind the artificial lives of those buried there. In the same scene, Kit thinks to himself that Paul is mistaken about seeing the “real” England. Where do the boundaries of real life and façade lie for these three characters? Do they use art as a means for capturing or defying reality?

8. How is sexuality used throughout the novel? Where does the body intersect with an emotional world as Life Class progresses? What did Elinor's virginity signify to her? How does the memory of Paul's mother affect his ability to form relationships?

9. What remains unspoken in Paul and Elinor's letters? What versions of themselves are they able portray on paper? What has been lost and gained by the use of e-mail between couples separated by warfare?

10. How is the characters' art described in the aftermath of Ypres? How do their images reflect the literary images created by Pat Barker's words?

11. What is Tonks attempting to teach his students? To what extent can an artist be taught?

12. How were you affected by the novel's acknowledgments section, which describes the real-life Henry Tonks and the tandem between life drawings in medical modes and for art's sake? What does fiction lend to the process of understanding significant chapters in history? What can novelists achieve that journalists can't, in terms of evoking history?

13. Discuss the novel's title. How does the notion of class as an aspect of social hierarchy apply to the characters? In terms of a class designed for instruction, what did Paul, Elinor, and Kit learn about the nature of life? How were they tested over their “lessons”? What are some of the most significant life classes you have endured?

14. Which historical aspects of Life Class were most surprising to you? How did you react to the concept of a drawing class segregated by gender, or the fact that divorce criteria differed between husbands and wives? Had you been aware of the internment of Germans in Great Britain, exemplified in Catherine Stein's story?

15. What emotional threads are woven throughout the Regeneration Trilogy and Life Class? In terms of power or essence, does the response of a visual artist differ from that of a poet in the face of wartime atrocity?

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2008

    A reviewer

    Art student friends find their friendships and future hopes changed forever during that fateful summer of 1914. Elinor Brooke holds fast to her artistic ambitions. Paul Tarrant joins the Belgian Red Cross, finding himself both an orderly and ambulance driver near Ypres. Their letters to each other give telling evidence of how their `work¿ infuses their daily lives and, as Barker has done in previous books, a remarkable cast of secondary characters, both real and fictional, bring your sense of time and place into remarkable clarity. Barker¿s one of my favorite people writing today. Can art live during a cataclysm like the Great War? That is one question a reader ponders in this remarkable book about young lives thrust into war. Two more questions: If you chose to hang onto your old life and independence will you be diminished in your own eyes and the eyes of others? What will loving someone mean in a world gone mad?

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted March 19, 2009

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