Saturday, July 28, 2007

Pat Barker returns to WWI

I'm a bit of a WWI buff, especially when it comes to portraying the war in literature so I've been eagerly awaiting Pat Barker's latest novel Life Class. And while, I don't think the book matches anything in her Regeneration trilogy, I give her props for exploring a different aspect of the war, in this case, its effects on three young art students studying at the Slade Institute. The novel is divided into two parts, pre-war and the war itself, and essentially repeats the actions in varying permutations and with different results in both sections. Triangular relationships, a memorable trip, attitudes towards sex, jealousy and violence, and the attempts to convey something meaningful in art all become slightly distorted and confused when placed in the contex of larger events. And yet this is a novel about intensely private and individual responses to the war. Barker has created a very intricate and complex character in Elinor Brooke, (loosely based on the fascinating artist Dora Carrington) who retreats from the war as much as possible in her life and art - which is impossible for the two men she becomes involved with. I enjoyed the novel, but wish Barker had explored the artistic impact of the war in more detail. We get minute and graphic descriptions of the horrors of the war, but not in the paintings that emerge from it. My other wish is that some publisher would put out a really thick, thorough, beautifully illustrated (in colour) book of art from the First World War. There are smaller books available and ones on individual painters, but no encylopedic overview of all the styles and subject matters. It would be absolutely fascinating and haunting.

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