life-class1June 2008

This is what is fascinating about belonging to a Book Circle. Most of the time the books, selected by Members are well received. There may be one or two quibbles, or a subject actively disliked but most meet general approval. This book was very different! Assuming Pat Barker would produce another wonderful effort – having won the Booker with The Ghost Road and received praise for all The Regeneration Trilogy, Union Street and many others – it was a shock to realise that Life Class was vastly inferior. Despite flashes of brilliance it was very ‘lumpy’ and disjointed with the second half of the book far superior to the first.

It is the Spring of 1914 and a group of students are attending the life drawing class of Professor Harry Tonks at the Slade School of Art. Paul Tarrant- from a poor working class background is devastated to be told his work is badly drawn with no feeling. He is very attracted to a fellow student Elinor Brooke who is well thought of but, unfortunately, she is in love with Kit Neville, a young man, not long out of collage, but whose work is already well known. Paul turns to an artist’s model for consolation and has a passionate affair with her,

As War breaks out, Paul and Elinor seem to drift together but while Elinor socialises with the Bloomsbury Set, unaffected it seems by the War, Paul becomes a volunteer in the Red Cross in Belgium, and works in a field hospital among mutilated and dying soldiers. With a heart rending description of the appalling conditions, and the exhausting , demoralizing work of the Surgeons, doctors and orderlies, Pat Barker’s Life Class “kicks into gear” as one critic puts it, after a very shaky first half.

Her background in Medicine has given her knowledge and insight into this separate world. She writes descriptively and vividly and places the historic setting with great aplomb, but one criticism was her clumsy use of language and idiom, not part of the vocabulary of that time. This and the seemingly pointless blind alleys in the plot made for a disappointing book, which we felt was unworthy of an author of such repute.

In April we were shocked at the news of the sudden death of one of our founder members, Jenny, who we will greatly miss. We are also saddened to say goodbye to another member, Faith, who retires and moves to pastures new. She goes with our best wishes.

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