Book 189: Life Class

This book caught my eye on the new arrivals shelf at the library, so I snagged it. Put in brief, it’s a book about British artists during the First World War, and in addition to being a book about art, it’s also about the war, and the different responses people had to the events of the war. I found it both rather good, and really annoying, mainly because there was one character I simply loathed. But I think that’s kind of the point of her character, she’s meant to be hateful.

As the book opens, we are introduced to the main character, Paul, along with Elinor, his love interest, both of whom are studying at the Slade. We also meet Catherine, a character who seems to be included solely because she is German, and this gives the author lots of chances to bemoan the treatment of Germans in Britain in the First World War. We also meet Teresa, Paul’s first love interest, who has a dangerous husband whom we are at first led to believe Teresa is making up; when he turns out to be very real, it’s a neat little twist. We also meet Neville, an accomplished artist who is a bit older, and with the stage set, we plunge into the tensions of the war.

When the war finally does break out, we have Neville volunteering to go to the front because he wants to use the experience as a tool for painting, and Paul going reluctantly because he doesn’t want someone to send him a white feather. Elinor, meanwhile, obstinately wants to pretend that the war doesn’t exist. While I don’t think that everyone needs to be doing something war-related during a war, I found her character positively obnoxious, because her willful determination to ignore the war was just tedious, and stupid, and boring.

Naturally, a rift develops as Paul deals with working in a hospital at the front, and there are little subplots, and in the end you think everything is going to fall apart, but we are left with the image of Paul and Elinor in bed together in London after Paul is sent home because of an injury. Which kind of annoyed me; I would have liked to see Paul dump her for being a frivolous little twit, and the whole conversation which precedes the bedding is just awkward and stupid.

So I don’t know how I feel about this book. It got me thinking, which is I suppose a good thing, and I always say that a hateable character is a good character, but parts of the book seemed very inconsistent and clunky. Fault of editing, fault of the author, or fault of the reader? I don’t know.


Life Class, by Pat Barker. Published 2008, 311 pages. Fiction.