Over There

Life Class
Pat Barker
Doubleday, $23.95, 311 pp.

After reading part 1 of Pat Barker’s Life Class, I found to my surprise and disappointment that I was seriously considering not finishing the book. I had looked forward to reading this work after greatly admiring her magnificent Regeneration trilogy, which established her not only as an authority on World War I but also as one of the most important novelists of the day. In a brief review of those novels in Commonweal (June 20, 1997), I wrote,

Complex, subtle, shocking, Barker’s novels portray this hideous war through the effects it had on a set of fascinating characters, some actual historic people, some fictional.... The books are written with an almost magical simplicity that manages to be more expressive than any gnashing of teeth or tearing of hair.

This time around the characters are a group of art students, drinking, debating pompously about art and love, drawing, forming themselves into an unconvincing triangle to carry forward a feeble plot that seems to be going nowhere of interest. The book is set in the spring of 1914. The war is brewing all around, but this set of prosperous, successful Englishmen still think they can insulate themselves from the inconvenience and disruption it will inevitably bring. A father advises his son, who wants to enlist: “I think you’ll find that the army can manage quite well without help from...you. That’s what professional armies are for.”

Turn the page to part 2 and the first sentence reads “Everything stinks: creosote, bleach, disinfectant, soil, blood, gangrene.” We could not be further away from the genteel British household we met a page or two earlier. The scene is Belgium, a makeshift hospital on the outskirts of Ypres, and Pat Barker is in her element. Nothing is too ghastly for her to depict and her vivid, pungent language is an ideal vehicle to transport us to a place we’ve never been and, God willing, never will be. Paul, the main character in the vapid triangle of part 1, is transformed into a dedicated and highly competent caregiver who spends endless hours tending the appalling wounds of soldiers just off the battlefield or out of the operating room. Amputations, infections, and gangrene are the constants in his day. He and his colleagues must be unsentimental about the people they are treating; their relationships to these half-living vessels of suffering are basic and nonanalytic, inescapably close but not intimate. Here is Paul orienting Lewis, a newly arrived volunteer:  

“You know the very young one who died?”  

Paul frowned into the darkness. No, he couldn’t remember any of the three who’d died. Not their faces.

“Sister Byrd said he had gas gangrene, but I thought the Germans haven’t used gas?”  

“They haven’t. It’s when tiny organisms in the soil get into a wound, they produce gas.”  

“And that’s the smell?”

“You get used to it.... Look, there are three ways you can tell if it’s gas gangrene. One, the smell. And then there’s a kind of crackling under the skin. It’s...it’s quite hard to describe, but you’ll know it once you’ve felt it. I’ll show you tomorrow if I get a chance.”  

He was turning away as he spoke.  

“And the third?”  

“I’m sorry?”  

“You said three things.”  

“Did I? The third thing is they die.”

Barker examines how the caregivers manage to break through this crust of detachment to achieve an intimacy and vitality they were lacking in their prewar life. Paul gradually forms a close friendship with Lewis, a Quaker who is more idealistic than he and more open to forming personal connections to the patients he works with. Barker expresses Lewis’s vulnerability in this amazing description of his face:

frizzy hair, eyes that clear Viking blue that makes their owner look capable of anything, skin so freckled it was almost a deformity.... He didn’t look human, not entirely human. Ariel. That’s who he was.

Lewis doesn’t develop the apparent indifference or detachment that affects—or afflicts—the other caregivers. He remains able to put a firm reassuring hand on the wrist of a man stoically enduring an agonizing dressing change, or spend silent hours beside a suffering patient, lending comfort with his presence.

Gradually Paul allows himself to recognize and absorb Lewis’s uncommon openness. One of Paul’s cases was a child who had had both his arms blown off and then died. The surgeon on duty told Paul that the child’s mother had come to the hospital and smothered him to spare him a life of suffering. In a letter home, Paul writes,

It’s strange, isn’t it? You go on and on, or I do, rather, seeing God knows what horrors and learning not to care or anyway not to care more than you need to do the job, and then something happens that gets right under your skin. I can’t forget them, the boy and his mother.

Through Lewis’s example, and because the war has gotten “right under [Paul’s] skin,” Paul survives as a more rounded and self-confident person. In the end he grows to love a woman and to understand that his art, formerly seen by him as an academic failure, can become a means of expressing what a life in war has taught him.

Barker does not address directly the big unanswered question: How is it that we can allow ourselves to do this to one another again and again and yet again? Surely she has thoughts along these lines, but this kind of speculation is not her way. If you want to understand deeply some important phenomenon, you have to look at it squarely, again and again. Pat Barker makes us experience war by drenching us in the details of battlefield and hospital. It’s as close to firsthand as we want to get. The concrete horror makes all the earlier talk of art and love seem like so much hot air.

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About the Author

Molly Finn, a longtime contributor, lives in New York City.