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World War I Serves as 'Life Class' for Young Artists

Feb 23, 2008 (All Things Considered)

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In Pat Barker's new book, Life Class, the author returns to the world-altering event that has served as the backdrop to several of her novels.

In her Booker-Prize winning Regeneration Trilogy, Barker explored the impact of World War I on soldiers. Her latest work examines the war through the eyes of three somewhat aimless civilian art students — Paul, Kit and Elinor.

In 1914, the three are students at the famous World War I-era Slade School of Art, and they spend their time wandering from class to cafe to country house, ignoring — at first — the clouds on the horizon.

Barker's 20-something protagonists struggle with their artistic ability, the pressures of Slade's demanding faculty and their professional and sexual desires. But when the war comes, Paul leaves to become a hospital orderly, and Kit volunteers as an ambulance driver so he can be close to the action. Kit wants to get the war's gruesome images onto his canvases right away.

Through her young characters, Barker explores familiar themes from her previous novels with a new perspective. When do artists step over the line in portraying tragedy? What responsibilities do artists have to their subjects?

Jacki Lyden spoke with Barker about how the war transforms the protagonists in Life Class.

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