The Voyage Out Book Group’s Reader’s Guide to Life Class by Pat Barker
Life Class by Pat Barker
Contemporary Female Novelists from England
Other Books From Region:
Zadie Smith’s NW
Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body
Novelist Pat Barker was born in Thornaby-on-Tees in Yorkshire, England, on 8 May 1943.
She was educated at the London School of Economics, where she read International History, and at Durham University. She taught History and Politics until 1982. She began to write in her mid-twenties and was encouraged to pursue her career as a writer by the novelist Angela Carter. Her early novels dealt with the harsh lives of working-class women living in the north of England. Her first book, Union Street (1982) won the Fawcett Society Book Prize, while her second, Blow Your House Down (1984), was adapted for the stage by Sarah Daniels in 1994. The Century’s Daughter (re-published as Liza’s England in 1996) was published in 1986, followed by The Man Who Wasn’t There in 1989.
In 1983 she was named as one of the 20 ‘Best Young British Novelists’ in a promotion run by the Book Marketing Council and Granta magazine. Her trilogy of novels about the First World War, which began with Regeneration in 1991, was partly inspired by her grandfather’s experiences fighting in the trenches in France. Regeneration was made into a film in 1997 starring Jonathan Pryce and James Wilby. The Eye in the Door (1993), the second novel in the trilogy, won the Guardian Fiction Prize, and The Ghost Road (1995), the final novel in the series, won the Booker Prize for Fiction. Another World (1998), although set in contemporary Newcastle, is overshadowed by the memories of an old man who fought in the First World War.
Her novel Border Crossing (2001), describes the relationship between a child psychologist and a young man convicted of murder 13 years earlier. Double Vision (2003), concerns the atrocity of war and two men who are caught up in its shadow.
Pat Barker was awarded a CBE in 2000. Her latest novels are Life Class (2007) and Toby’s Room (2012), the latter returning to the First World War,
Questions/ Tangents/ Topics:
1) The novel opens in such a happy place. Youth, love, sex, jealousy, Art, and excitement. How does the reader’s knowledge that things are about to change tint our reading of this early happiness?
2) Barker’s novel has only a handful of characters, and those characters come against huge world events. Her book isn’t about these events, though, it’s about the characters. How do the characters change throughout the novel?
3) Barker’s writing is solid and simple. She stays out of the way of the story in a traditional way. One area that she experiments in is point of view. Her third person narrative is ever present, but it changes focus depending on which character is being talked about at the time. She also uses the trick of letters to add even more angles to the narrative. How do these subtle point of view shifts work into the plot?
4) Is this a genre novel? War Novel, Feminist text, Historical fiction… Genre helps develop expectation, but what were your expectations for this novel, and how were those expectations met or not?
5) How is sex used in the novel? How is gender displayed?
6) Elinor’s argument with Paul about the usefulness and morality of painting, drawing pictures of deformed soldiers are key to how these characters see the war. One thing that Elinor brings up is that the use of these images can be seen as manipulative. But isn’t all art manipulative? What are the moral implications for Paul in making these paintings? How does Barker, a war novelist, fit into this debate?
What We Talked About When We Talked About This Book:
- The longest, and most worthwhile conversations centered around Elinor. How does she interact with her world? Do we empathize with her as a woman? One member brought up the idea of her as a “Fashionable Objector” to the war. Other members thought of her as rejecting, from a feminist perspective, the society that rejects her.
- Gender is so much a part of the novel. We talked about the gendered spaces that all of the characters live in, and the gendered spaces that society would choose for them. The dynamics of the novel live within the differences between gender expectations and gender reality.
- The structure of the novel is so formal. The first part of the book is almost exactly the same size as the second part. The second part has exactly the same amount of chapters as the first. Most individual chapters are the same length. This uniform structure called into question the degree to which Barker pushed her boundaries.
- We had a conversation about the novel’s angles. You see characters, often, through the eyes of other characters. This distance made us question the validity of anything we read, and is a great way to gather information about the seer and not always the seen. This rabbit hole is a crazy road to go down.