There's little doubt that Pat Barker has a strong interest in the First World War. Perhaps her most famous work - the Regeneration Trilogy - is set in that conflict and it is a heavy influence on many of her other works. In Life Class, she returns to it directly for the first time since the close of the Regeneration Trilogy.
Life Class follows the lives of a group of art students at London's famous Slade Academy art school. On the eve of the war, there is nothing more important to them than art; once war breaks out, things change dramatically. Some cling to art as a source of stability, whilst amidst the slaughter of the battlefield, others start to view it as a futile, childish refuge of no importance.
Without pushing "issues" in your face, Life Class is a book with some very deep themes running throughout. With novels set in the First World War, it's all too easy to settle for a true, but hackneyed line about what a terrible waste of life it all was. The best war novels go deeper than that, and that's what Life Class does. It looks at how World War One changed life for everyone, regardless of whether they were direct combatants, involved in ancillary work (such as a hospital orderly or ambulance driver) or simply tried to ignore what was happening and not become involved.
Like All Quiet on the Western Front, it hones in on ideas of a "lost generation" - how the war effectively destroyed an entire generation of men. Not just those who died or returned alive but seriously injured, but also those who found it hard to ever return to a "normal" existence or find enjoyment in those things which had previously brought them so much pleasure. Life Class is not so much about the fighting of war as its psychological impact.
Most impressively of all, it achieves all of this quietly and without fuss. It's not a preachy book full of anti-war sentiment. Indeed, Barker has the courage to express all viewpoints within the narrative - from characters who are deeply pro-war, ones who don't want to fight, but feel compelled to d so for the sake of honour/country/freedom to those with much more defined anti-war feelings. She even includes a character who sees war as an opportunity (to forge a career as a war artist and establish a reputation). This lends a deeper, richer tone to the book, rooting in the period, rather than colouring it with our sensibilities 100 years on.
The way it achieves all of this is in a very understated fashion. At times (particularly during the early parts), you start to wonder whether this is actually a novel about the war at all. Early sections focus on the trials and tribulations of the main characters as they try to make their way through art school and establish reputations as upcoming young artists. The growing international conflict is simply a distant backdrop and a mild distraction.
Yet this unexpected focus bears unexpected dividends. It establishes the characters as people, helping us to see how they behave in more normal circumstances and to understand what makes them tick and it allows for different views on the war to be expressed in a non-traditional way.
The focus on characters also makes this a very human drama. The war is almost a backdrop to events, something which shapes and influences the characters, but does not define them. We witness how they try to carry on, clinging to some aspect of what makes them "them". Of course, if you are after a "proper" war novel, full of accounts of battles and tactics, you will be somewhat disappointed and may feel the book (and particularly the first part) is rather slow and pointless.
I wasn't really sure what to expect from Life Class, but quickly found myself fascinated by the lives of these fictional characters. This is helped by Barker's very readable style which makes you want to find out more. Although Life Class is quite a deep book, it never feels like heavy going - quite the opposite, in fact. Life Class is a joy to read, a genuine page-turner. Barker doesn't do anything particularly clever or fancy, she just tells a good story, introducing interesting characters and gradually building layer upon layer of complexity. This was very definitely one of those books that I didn't want to stop reading.
When I read Barker's Regeneration Trilogy, I found it somewhat uneven, enjoying some parts but finding others heavier going. I had no such reservations with Life Class. It gripped me from page one and never let me go until I had read the final word.
Available for about £6 new (Kindle or paperback) or £2 second hand.
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