I’m glad I don’t live in Pat Barker’s head. If we accept that what a writer puts on the page is tiny fraction of his or her mental furniture, Barker’s thoughts are full of the gruesome sights and sounds and smells of a Belgian Red Cross tent in the winter of 1914: gangrenous limbs and eyeballs dangling on shattered cheekbones, cold and wet and boredom and irritability and the endless stench of putrefaction.
The “life class” of the title is, literally, the class in drawing from a live model at London’s Slade School of Fine Art. (Metaphorically? Up to you.) The central character, Peter Tarrant, is a student at the Slade along with Elinor Brooke. The novel begins in the summer of 1914 but Barker does without the portentous foreshadowing of, say, Isabel Colegate’s The Shooting Party. Not for several chapters does discussion of the Balkan crisis pin us down in time. Not until Peter has been an orderly in a Belgian hospital tent for weeks do we learn that the nearby town is called Ypres. The horrible significance of it all creeps up on both reader and characters.
Peter thinks he is in love with Elinor, who remains in England painting, and their correspondence demonstrates the strain placed on them by their different circumstances. Peter can think of nothing but the war while Elinor, painting English landscapes at home, finds his preoccupation selfish and morose. Is art important? More important than death? How does our experience affect our creativity? Interestingly, though Barker’s characters are preoccupied with what and how they see, she insists on every facet of their sensory experience, without ever slipping into overheated prose.
The overall effect is similar to what I took away from Geraldine Brooks’ March: a fine-grained visceral description of what war does to everyone caught up in it. March won the Pulitzer prize, Life Class the Booker, so this is apparently a moment when we’re receptive to that reading experience.