Monday, October 6, 2008

Drawn from life

Pat Barker's Life Class tells the story of Paul Tarrant, a working class lad who is using his grandmother's legacy to go to art school. He is attending the Slade School of Fine Art, but isn't feeling very successful. In the first pages of the novel, he storms out of his life drawing class after his instructor, Henry Tonks, chides him for his work. Paul knows that his work lacks something, particularly after he connects with two other artists at the Slade: Elinor Brooke and Kit Neville. Kit is living the life of a successful artist, and Elinor's student painting has just won an award. Both Paul and Kit have fallen hard for Elinor, but she seems interested only in their friendship.

It is the summer of 1914, and once World War I breaks out, Paul attempts to enlist. He has just recovered from a bout of pneumonia, so the army rejects him, and he joins the Belgian Red Cross as a hospital orderly. Just before he leaves London, he and Elinor become all but lovers. Every day at the front, he faces the horrific injuries and his coping mechanism is to distance himself emotionally. He rents an attic room in Ypres to use for painting, and impetuously invites Elinor to join him. She arrives just before the bombing of the city, and -- after some delicately described lovemaking -- she leaves for safety and England. Paul is transferred to ambulance driving, while Elinor resolutely continues her painting. Paul's painting is transformed by what he has seen in the war, and when he returns to London to recover from an injury, we're not quite sure if their romance will continue. He paints the horrors of what he has seen, and she doesn't believe that is a fit subject for art. We are left without a resolution.

I very much enjoyed Pat Barker's first novels of World War I, the acclaimed Regeneration trilogy inspired by the psychological work of Dr. W.H.R. Rivers and his attempts to cure shell-shocked soldiers. She has such a feel for the period -- both the Western Front and the home front.

I enjoyed this book as well, mostly because the reader was such a pleasure to listen to. [Preface to all remarks: Lee enjoys an English accent!] Russell Boulter read warmly, soothingly in a husky, low register -- I think I've [mis]used the warm honey in the ear metaphor before. He carefully characterized the class distinctions -- Paul and his lover earlier in the story are both from working class families in ... northern England (?); Kit and Elinor are from the more privileged classes. Boulter read women with a higher voice, but it didn't sound unnatural. Much of the book is letters between Paul and Elinor and he sounded as comfortable in Elinor's skin as he did Paul's. Paul is the primary witness of the war's horrors, and Boulter chose to read those descriptions with dispassionate distance that Paul was using. (It didn't make them any less horrible to hear about.) He was even quite sexy reading sex, without being prurient. I'd listen to him read again.

I've struggled here before with adult novels with teen appeal. I think there will always be sophisticated teenagers who will read and enjoy complex novels like this one, but I tried to put myself in this book as a teenager, and I don't think I would've liked it ... even though I am (and was) a big fan of historical fiction. The story meandered, the characters were adults, the ending unresolved. I gave it an official no for our committee.

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