MELISSA BLOCK, host:
British writer Pat Barker is best known for her regeneration trilogy of novels about the British during World War I. Her new novel, "Life Class," takes place during that same conflict.
Alan Cheuse has a review.
ALAN CHEUSE: Barker's central character is Paul Tarrant, a drawing student at London's famous Slade Gallery. He is studying under renowned British surgeon-turned-art teacher and his teacher tells him that his sketches seem to lack passion. Paul drifts through nights in cafes with the Slade crowd, yearns for remote Elinor, the daughter of a high-society doctor, trades ideas with the Slade school proteges and falls into an affair with an artist model from the Midlands with a vindictive husband.
Only when England slides into war does this narrative and the back-and-forth of Paul's companions in art begin to take on meaning. As the shells whistle overhead, they learn the value and insignificance of human life and the resiliency of art on the Belgian battlefield, where Paul volunteers as an ambulance driver.
Barker's depiction of pre-war London's bohemia is interesting enough. But her portrayal with the field hospitals where Paul finally realizes how passion consumes a person marks this novel as distinctive and harrowing. Take this depiction of a shelling ground where Elinor, who has traveled to Belgium to be with Paul, notices bodies not yet covered, a woman with a little dog in her arms, three other women, two men and then lying on the cobbles, a child. She thought how strange it was to lie on the cold ground looking up at the sky with rain falling into your eyes and not blink or turn your head away.
Pat Barker refuses to turn her head away. She writes with clear, straightforward realism, showing her debt to British writers such as D.H. Lawrence and George Orwell and reserving a place for herself in English letters as the peacetime novelist who knows best how to write about war.
BLOCK: The novel is "Life Class" by Pat Barker. Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairbanks, Virginia.
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