Pat Barker is one of those writers I’ve been aware of for ages – well, since she won the Booker Prize in 1995 with The Ghost Road, the final volume in her First World War trilogy – without ever getting up the interest to sit down and read her. Not that that puts her in an exclusive club, for we all have must-read writers we never quite get around to. So when she returned to the Great War with her new novel Life Class, and it was received as a return to form in the press, and – crucially – the publishers gave it a nice retro cover which put me in mind of Peter Ho Davies’s wonderful The Welsh Girl – well, I finally fell.
And it is an assured performance, clearly the work of a writer who – for want of a better way of putting it – knows what she’s doing. Life Class brings together art and war, idealism and realism, and sets them in conflict with a cast of plausible characters. In 1914, Paul Tarrant is a young working-class man studying to become a painter, but feels he lacks the talent of his friends Elinor Brooke and Kit Neville. Messy love affairs follow, and when war breaks out Paul joins the Belgian Red Cross. This takes us to halfway through the book, but the cover flap gives all this away and more, so don’t write in.
The scenes in the London art world before the war are firmly drawn but Barker seems to be entering her element when the blood starts flowing. She never flinches at grisly description (“Shrapnel had come through from the back and severed the penis at the base”) and brings an appropriately visual sense to the occasional moments of drama:
But even as she spoke there was another crash and everything on the table did a little jump in the air. The light bulb was swinging at the end of its flex, sending shadows from side to side. All the people in the room seemed to be clinging from the clapper of a bell. The electric light flickered again, only it was more than a flicker now. A long, fierce, edge-of-darkness buzzing and then the lights went out. The candles, which were really no more than ornaments, wobbled but kept going, giving just enough light to show people’s faces and hands. What Elinor remembered afterwards was the inertia. Nobody moved. They couldn’t believe it had happened; they didn’t want to abandon their nice meals and their bottles of wine, and so they all just sat there, staring at each other, until another thud, closer, brought with it the sound of breaking glass.
The chapters become more cumulatively more powerful, and the differing status levels of the characters bring out interesting ideas about whether great times of crisis render art frivolous, or all the more necessary (and can even improve it). And there is an unsentimental handling of love.
However the book retains a reserve or calmness for much of its length which seems not entirely apt for the passions and devastations under consideration. It’s the sort of read which will polarise opinion – some will think its controlled observation of history and solid handling of ‘issues’ to be the very essence of proper literature; others will find it old-fashioned and ponderous, a sort of literature-by-numbers. I fell somewhere in the middle. Amid all the steady prose there is the occasional clanger of a phrase which jolted me out of the story. “You know how a poppy looks when you peel the outer green casing back too early?” Well. No.