Red Wheelbarrow Book Reviews
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Another Worldby Pat Barker
Pat Barker, author of several novels devoted to the ravages of World War I, has, this time, created a different background but once more uses that terrible war to illustrate its devastation on its actors and on its survivors.
Her canvas in the first part of the book, is the life drawing class at The Slade School of Art in London in the summer before the outbreak of war, and a field hospital at Ypres in the winter of 1914/15 in the second part.
As in the Regeneration Trilogy, some of the persons come to us from real life. Henry Tonks, feared master instructor at The Slade, artist in his own right who came to art from medicine, returned to medicine during war time ďto contributeĒ and actually was a pioneer in techniques of plastic surgery on the faces destroyed by war. He is also the artist responsible for 69 portraits of ďfacially mutilated men which are among the most moving images to have come out of any war.Ē (from the authorís Acknowledgement).
Paul Tarrant is his somewhat unsatisfactory and frustrated student, Kit Neville, the most talented of the masterís ex students and Elinor Brooke, the girl artist wanted by both men.
There are some secondary characters: another woman who is both model and sex object, and a fellow nurse, a young Quaker who is drafted to work in the same unit as Paul with the Red Cross in Belgium. The triangle forms the central plot.
The first part is entirely set in London, either at the Slade or at the Cafť Royal during the summer of 1914 when the shadow of war hangs over one and all and we get to know the actors of Pat Barkerís stage.
The second part, at war, is the center of the novel. Her shattering descriptions of the misery of war, her many previous books dealing with those same horrors have once again laid a foundation which is both merciless and moving in all the detail provided for us to know that this is the ultimate human insanity.
The principal character is Paul. His struggles to make sense of the value of art in his life and at the same time to understand the role of war and his part in that ghastly enterprise, form the kernel of the book. His evolving love for Elinor, his bitter rivalry with Kit both over love and art, his growing sense of friendship with Lewis, these give form to the story. Both Paul and Elinor change over the course of this year and the means by which we learn of this change, is by means of letters from London to Ypres and back from the war to the world of peace at the Slade. The gulf between them widens:
Elinor to Paul:
Iím sorry you had such a dreadful job to do. I donít know much about what's going on out there because I donít read the newspapers any more. Like you, I find it hard to cross the desert that divides us. It feels like standing on top of a mountain sending semaphore signals across the abyss. But donít, whatever you do, stop writing... Write soon. This war destroys so much, donít let it destroy us as well.
But it does. Elinor refuses to think about the war, Paul is mired in its horrors. There is no bridge to cross the chasm.
A difficult and beautiful book.