When Life Class opens, Paul Tarrant is literally in a life class, painting a model and evidently not doing it very well, as his professor's critique is scathing. Paul, whose working class father was not supportive of his status as an art student, begins to wonder whether he ought to leave his renowned school ("the Slade"). His friend Elinor Brooke, also a student at the Slade, and her friend Kit Neville, a recent graduate, encourage him to keep working. Paul becomes involved with one of the life class models, Teresa, but her mentally disturbed husband, who comes and goes from her life, eventually breaks up their relationship. At this point, both Kit and Paul are interested in Elinor, but she shows them little beyond friendship and a desire to talk about art.
Then the real life class begins--the Great War. Kit joins the ambulance corps with an eye toward painting the war. Paul tries to enlist but is rejected for medical reasons and he, too, joins the medical corps. Just before he leaves, Elinor's behavior suggests she might be interested in deepening their relationship, and he eventually invites her to visit him in the town near the hospital where he is working. This seems like a ridiculous idea and, indeed, does not end well--but it allows them to sleep together, which seems to be a key development in the plot.
Elinor returns to London and, as evidenced through an exchange of letters with Paul, decides to think as little as possible about the war; art, "the work," is all that she cares about and she is successful, winning prizes, selling some paintings, and being taken into a cultural group modeled after the Bloomsbury Group. Paul meanwhile sees death and horrendous injuries on a daily basis; indeed, he becomes ill from having a cut in his gloves while working on a patient's gangrenous limb. He is creating art based on his experiences, but he does not understand how Elinor can simply ignore what is happening in the world and, more specifically, what is happening to a man she purportedly loves.
After sustaining a serious injury, Paul returns to London to recuperate. There, he meets with both Elinor, who despite his injury remains uninterested in the war, and Kit, whose war paintings have become a sensation in a form of artistic profiteering. Paul is awash in conflicting feelings . . . and the book ends.
There is much to like about Life Class: it explores interesting questions about art, war, and the relationship between the two; Pat Barker's language is descriptive (in the case of the injuries suffered by soldiers perhaps too descriptive); the device of letters between Paul and Elinor is effective in establishing their attitudes and experiences. Less effective is the depiction of the relationships among the three main characters--Kit, Paul, and Elinor. Elinor and Kit are so self-centered and narcissistic that, while we can imagine why Paul initially sought their company, it is difficult to understand why he continued to do so. In fact, the start of the war is what makes the book come to life, ironic as that may be. Even then, however, I found it difficult to take Elinor's philosophy seriously because it seemed to arise not from deep beliefs but from her own self-centeredness.
I have mixed feelings about Life Class, but I found it interesting enough that I'm probably going to look for Barker's second book about these character's, Toby's Room.
In bad weather, as now, the rain pelts down on the corrugated-iron roof with the rattle of machine-gun fire. At the moment it's a real downpour. Waking from their half-sleep, the bundles in the blankets began to stir and cry out in fear. One of the head wounds throws off his blanket, clambers to his feet and, naked, runs between the rows of beds. Two of the orderlies give chase and eventually grab hold of him, one by each arm, and hold him like that, his arms outstretched, a blood-soaked bandage slipping down across one eye.