Lisa's Reviews > Life Class

Life Class by Pat Barker
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Feb 13, 11

Read in February, 2011 — I own a copy

** spoiler alert ** I'd read most of Pat Barker's books some years ago so it was like meeting an old friend again when I picked up this book. There are two main characters who are both studying at the Slade in 1914 when we meet them: Paul, who is a would-be artist (and almost all-round nice guy) and Elinor who is somewhat less sympathetic. We are shown Paul's internal and external struggles with his art plus his thoughts about where he fits into the society in which he moves. After a minor meltdown in class, Paul attempts to rescue a vulnerable drunken girl in a park and later on befriends a girl who claims that her estranged violent husband is stalking her.

Paul is both frustrated and disbelieving of Teresa's predicament by turns until he is assaulted himself whereupon Teresa runs away again. After this, Paul turns for friendship to Elinor who is attempting to distance herself, none too successfully from both her families expectations of her and from an insistent suitor who keeps proposing to her. Elinor refuses to get married to please someone else's sexual drive or to comply with society's mores.

Elinor is also struggling to find her way in life as a would-be artist, although in so doing Barker raises some very interesting questions about the freedoms of people within society to do as they please - Elinor refuses point blank to get involved, whereas Paul can't wait to join up. When war breaks out, Paul rushes off to sign up but is reduced to working as an orderly in a basic hospital in Belgian as his health is too poor to allow him to fight. By contrast, Elinor refuses to do any war work or see any need for her to do so, even when all around her are signing up to fight or nurse. (Interestingly, Barker never mentions munitions work as being an option for Elinor.)

Elinor is also angry with Paul for drawing artistic inspiration from the carnage he sees around him every day, even after she is caught in a bombardment when she sneaks over to Belgian to visit Paul in the Forbidden Zone, and sees it as being somehow cheapening or prostituting his talent. Elinor continues to work in her own vein and strikes up friendships with socialites CO's which drives her further away from Paul as they are living in two different worlds. In time, Paul also proposes to Elinor which she refuses, leaving open the queston of where this couple will end up. Paul is conventional, finding friendship and support even in the midst of the battlefields and Elinor is somewhat out of step with her peers by defying some societal conventions but less so than she thinks.

Barker does specialise in novels set in WWI but as far as I can see, this book had to be set in the First World War to allow Elinor to refuse to work for the war effort - had this been set in the Second World War, she would not have had the freedom to do so as she would have been likely to have been called up.
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