Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


Life Class by Pat Barker








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Pat Barker’s latest novel, Life Class, features a trio of art students in London at the beginning of the first World War. If all artists are meant to suffer, those in Life Class are true to form, and their ambitions to get through their suffering and into success cause much of the tension in the novel. Some of Barker’s finest writing comes when the setting shifts from London to the front line of the war in France, and when life becomes more important than school or art or anything else. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 3, pp. 25-7:


A light rain had fallen. The street was busy, people hurrying to restaurants and bars. Women's scents, as they walked past on the arms of husbands and lovers, min­gled with the smell of leather and dung from the cab horses that stamped and jingled in a long row by the curb. For no better reason than the freshness of moist air on his skin, Paul felt suddenly full of hope.

Teresa was pulling on her gloves, pale gray cotton, pressing each finger into place . She barely reached his shoulder but was so slim and held herself so erect that she struck him as a tall woman, and how beautiful that dark, warm coloring, those cheekbones that caught and held the light.

"I suppose you've already had dinner?"

No I came straight from modeling." Her voice had an un­expected rasp to it, like fingernails dragged across the skin. "I'll have something when I get back."

As she spoke her pale gray eyes darkened, and he realized two things: she was hungry that must be why the wine had affected her so much and she was afraid.

"Perhaps we could eat together?"

She looked up at him. A cleft in her chin, he noticed, rare in women. He struggled not to touch it, the side of his thumb would rest there so sweetly.

"That would be nice."

"There's a place over there. Shall we try that?"

They ran across the street and pushed open the heavy door of the restaurant. Steamy heat, a smell of onions frying. The waiter showed them to a table by the window where they could look out at people walking past. Paul was delighted, par­ticularly since the couple at the next table were engrossed in each other. They were virtually alone.

"Would you like some wine?"

"More wine?" She blushed. "Yes, go on, why not?"

Her accent was very strong when she said that. He'd kissed and cuddled girls like her, standing with his back to the factory gates, pausing and pulling them deeper into the shadows whenever anybody walked past. But then he looked at her again and thought, Who are you kidding? You've never had a girl re­motely like this.

They ordered soup and roast beef and talked about their mutual acquaintances. Had she known Elinor long?

"Two years. She was only seventeen, you know, when she came to London. She's always saying what an old stick-in-the-mud her mother is, but when you think of it . . . letting a seventeen-year-old girl come to London, unchaperoned. Most mothers wouldn't do it."

"Would your mother?"

Her face hardened. "I was married at seventeen. No dan­ger of that with Elinor. Though it's not as if she hasn't had of­fers. You must have seen how men react to her?"

"I saw how Neville did."

"She keeps trying to get him interested in other girls." She looked at him mischievously. "Do you think she's attractive?" "In a boyish sort of way ..."

"Isn't that what men go for?"

"Not all of us."

"Neville does."

Perhaps she felt she'd said too much, because she immedi­ately raised her glass, using it as a shield against her mouth as she gaged round the room.

"Do you like Tonks?"

Her eyes widened. "Yes, I think I do. He's a very kind man. Underneath. "

"Tell that to Neville."

"Henry didn't like his work. But I think he always thought he had talent."

"Not the way Neville tells it. Tonks told him he despised his work and despised him even more."

"Oh? I didn't know that."


Barker’s dialogue rings true throughout Life Class, and her descriptive language often soars. The medical descriptions seemed vivid, and provided an ideal way to illustrate the shifting ambitions and aspirations of the characters. War changes everything.


Steve Hopkins, April 21, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the May 2008 issue of Executive Times


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