three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
33-Mar-Apr-2008
By: 
Pat Barker
user_rating: 
0

A-Life ClassLife Class returns to some of the themes of Pat Barker’s award-winning Regeneration Trilogy—including the psychological damage of World War I. In 1914, London art students imagine lives filled with love, art, and professional rivalry. A love triangle forms as Paul Tarrant, a not-so-promising artist, and Kit Neville, a rising painter, court the beautiful Elinor Brooke; Paul, from a working-class background unlike his peers, wins Elinor’s love. But their promising lives, love, and careers disintegrate after Paul and Kit volunteer for the Belgian Red Cross and witness death for the first time. When Elinor comes to visit Paul, she discovers a hardened young man—and the real horrors of war.
Doubleday. 320 pages. $23.95. ISBN: 0385524358

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Here, as in her best fiction, Barker unveils psychologically rich characters in steady, even strokes; social and political drama, as well as personal ambition, expose their contradictions over the course of the novel. The war will unravel the young painters’ notions of a creative life." Kathryn Crim

Irish Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Life Class has the feel of a chamber piece. Perhaps the symphonic range achieved in the Regeneration trilogy, which burned with a kind of cumulative energy, has spoiled us. But this reader closed the novel asking the question, what happened next?—and hoping against hope that Pat Barker might tell us." Mary Morrissy

Minneapolis Star Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The novel can be seen in two halves: The first celebrates the beauty of the human body that war mangles and desecrates. It’s not as compelling as the second half, in which we experience Paul’s terrible coming of age." Brigitte Frase

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Barker has constructed this novel with a daringly languid plot. … Barker never pushes the contemporary allusions here, but these are questions with tragic relevance for us." Ron Charles

Guardian (London) 3 of 5 Stars
"The contrast between a nightmare landscape of human guts being shovelled into buckets and the art-world suavities that have preceded it is perhaps too marked for comfort—no doubt as Barker intended it to be. … Sharply written and elegantly constructed, Life Class ends, as it could hardly fail to do, on an ambiguous note. Its occasional uncertainties, though, are those of tone, not destiny." DJ Taylor

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"While the novel covers some of the same ground—including battleground—as Barker’s superb Regeneration Trilogy, with historical figures again mingling with invented ones and artists substituted for the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, Life Class is lighter fare. … [Romance] ultimately outweighs both the claims of art and the horrors of war." Christopher Benfey

Critical Summary

It’s unsurprising that critics in the U.S. and U.K. compared Life Class to Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy (Regeneration, 1990; The Eye in the Door, 1993; and the Booker Prize-winning Ghost Road, 1995) in its thematic exploration of World War I’s immediate impact. Reviewers generally agreed that Life Class does not live up to its predecessors, though it has its redeeming features. While the first half feels slow (and, according to New York Times Book Review, a bit trite), the second half—when Paul comes of age at the Western Front—kicks into high gear as questions about art and war, social class, and modern-day connections come into play. Tellingly, many critics mentioned as their favorite character one with little more than a walk-on—the real-life artist, teacher, and surgeon Henry Tonks, whom they hope to see more of in a sequel.