I picked these books up because my online book club was reading Toby’s Room and I wanted to read the prequel, Life Class, as well. In view of this summer’s 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, my attention is definitely going to be grabbed by these two novels about a group of art students in London whose lives are changed by the outbreak of the war.
The main characters are all artists — Paul, who is the main character in Life Class, his sometime girlfriend Elinor whose story takes centre stage in Toby’s Room as she tries to find out what really happened to her “missing, presumed dead” brother Toby at the Front, and Kit, a talented but troublesome artist whose wartime experience leaves him more deeply scarred than any of the rest. I only discovered later that the main characters are loosely based on real artists of the era, and that one recurring minor character, Henry Tonks, was an actual person.
This novel provides an interesting look at lives disrupted by war — I thought Paul’s scenes as a battlefield medic in Life Class were the best of the two books in this regard, and Paul the most engaging of a group of characters who can sometimes seem a little distant from the reader. This distance kept me from getting as emotionally involved in the story as I would have liked, but it was interesting reading nonetheless. One thing that really struck me that I often forget was how close to home the war was for the English — when Elinor comes to Belgium for a weekend to visit Paul while he’s at the Front, her visit is illicit and against the rules but by no means impossible. It’s such a different war experience from ours on this side of the Atlantic where men sailed away from home and were half a world away from their families and loved ones for years, which, I think, gave a distant remoteness to what was happening overseas that people on the home front in Britain would not have shared.
Overall, these were two good historical novels, but I could have used a little more emotional intensity to really draw me into the story and make me care deeply about what happened to the characters.