Booker Prize winner Barker revisits some students at the Slade art school in the years before and after their experiences in Life Class (2008).
Part One, set in 1912, explains one reason why Elinor Brooke is the Slade’s edgiest student; on a visit to her wealthy parents’ country home, she has an incestuous one-night stand with her brother, Toby. Elinor flings herself into a dissection class at London Hospital, hoping to elevate her life-drawing skills to the exacting standards of Slade professor Henry Tonks. She also becomes close friends with arrogant, ambitious Kit Neville and meets new Slade student Paul Tarrant just before Part Two sweeps us ahead to 1917, in the thick of World War I. Toby is missing, believed killed; Paul and Kit have both been wounded, Kit with facial injuries that take him to Queen’s Hospital, where Tonks makes portraits of the disfigured men to assist the medical staff. “How can any human being endure this?” Elinor wonders as she looks at this work. It’s a rare moment of compassion for Elinor, who has hardened noticeably in the five-year interval and is obsessed with finding out what happened to Toby. A note among his belongings sent home from the front suggests that Kit knows something, and Elinor enlists her erstwhile lover Paul—whom she’s barely visited since he was wounded—to confront Kit in the hospital. Kit refuses to tell them anything, but the sordid truth about Toby’s fate does eventually come out. War’s horrors are a familiar subject for Barker, and she has always been a trenchant, uncompromising writer, but this sour work is far below the best pages of Life Class, let alone the majestic pessimism of her masterpiece, the Regeneration trilogy (Regeneration, 1992, etc.). Here, she seems to be exploring with diminishing returns themes that once displayed her gifts more fully.
A rare disappointment from one of England’s finest writers.