In early 1914, Paul Tarrant and Elinor Brooke are students at the Slade School of Art’s life-drawing class run by the formidable Professor Tonks. Paul, a working-class Northerner with the traditional chip on his shoulder, is uncertain about the value of his work. Lovely Elinor is much more calmly convinced of her own worth. Paul is attracted to Elinor but, there is a complication in the shape of Kit Neville, not long out of the Slade himself and already a successful artist. In the face of this competition Paul turns to Teresa, an artist’s model, an interesting character who leaves the plot rather too early.
The Great War breaks out and re-orders our protagonists’ lives. Paul and Kit join the Red Cross in Belgium while Elinor, though wishing to rise above the conflict and think of nothing but art, fights her own little war back in England as the defender of a German girl she has befriended against the prejudice and thuggery of the locals. Under the stresses, sometimes horrific, of his ambulance work, Paul reaches out again to Elinor. She joins him in Belgium for a stolen weekend but, by the end of the book, when Paul is on leave in London, it is by no means certain that their love for each other will last much longer.
In Life Class, Pat Barker again shows her remarkable empathy for the generation of the First World War. Some of the writing in the hospital scenes is profoundly harrowing. If the novel falls down at all, it is the inconclusiveness with which it ends. It may mirror the emptiness and confusion felt by many people at the time but, it would have helped if it had been clearer that this was the novelist’s intention. As it is it looks as if she just ran out of steam.