Full House Reading Challenge – Life Class – Pat Barker

Genre: Historical fiction, war

Style: Third person from various points of view

Rating: 3.5/5

Published: 2007

Format: paperback

Synopsis: Elinor and Paul are both artists, studying at the Slade School of Art when war breaks out. They have just declared their feelings for each other when Paul leaves to be an ambulance driver in France. Will their relationship survive the distance and the changes that war brings about in Paul’s character.

Reading Challenge: Full House Reading Challenge – genre: borrowed. 

I borrowed this from my in-laws. I asked my father-in-law to recommend something for me to read as there was no specific book I wanted to borrow from them. After picking out three or four that I had already read, he gave me Life Class. As I had already read the Regeneration Trilogy, I was looking forward to reading this one.

It took a while to get started. There was a lot of the story set in Slade School of Art, relaying Paul’s relationship before Elinor and analysing his feelings about his art. While this was well-written, I didn’t find it as interesting as the second half of the book. It felt a bit like doodlings, compared to the real picture later on in the war. This may have been deliberate as Paul – and his painting – only come alive during the war but it made the novel drag a bit.

Paul’s experience’s, first in a field hospital and then as an ambulance driver, are as brutal and soul-destroying as you might imagine. Paul begins to paint the injured soldiers, aware of the fact he may never be able to show these paintings. Nevertheless, he feels compelled to record what he sees, feeling that he has found the true function of art.

When Elinor visits him in France, she finds it difficult to relate to his experiences. She refuses to involve herself in the war in any way. She will not train as a nurse or any of the other possible female roles. This made it quite hard to like her. Instead, she becomes involved with the Bloomsbury Set and puts her art above everything. While I can see why you might feel like that, it made Elinor into a distant character who refused to engage with the horrific events around her.

As with the Regeneration books, it’s the details that stick with you. In the field hospital, Paul is helping to nurse a suicidal soldier back to life, only for him to be shot when he was well enough, a soldier’s penis is sliced off by a bomb and so on. The brutality of war is very clearly drawn and these sections were the best in the book. Also, the friendship between Paul and fellow ambulance driver, Richard Lewis is touching and much more believable than his relationship with Elinor.

Overall, I finished this feeling a bit let down. This is well written, it was a new point of view on the war (for me anyway) and left wanting to find out more about the true stories behind the novel. However, it seemed a bit flat overall, perhaps because it took so long to start talking about the war. And I was left wanting to know more about Paul and how his experiences had changed him. For me, this book could have started at part two and carried on. (I know there is a sequel and I will probably read that at some stage.)

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