Toby’s Room by Pat Barker

I am normally a bit sceptical about modern authors who attempt to recreate historical events and figures, and I do find there to especially be a glut of novels set in the WWI/Edwardian era that are at best rather mediocre and fixated on the idealised experiences of the upper class. There are of course plenty of contemporary novels and memoirs from this era that are wonderful and so evocative of their time and place, and it is tempting to brand all modern interpretations as second rate in comparison. However, Birdsong reminded me that there are some good books out there that are both contemporary and fresh in their writing style, yet give a real sense of immediacy of the period they are attempting to recreate. Toby’s Room is one of these. It is Pat Barker’s latest novel; she is famous for the excellent Regeneration trilogy, which brings to life the experiences of Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves during WWI, so I had high expectations from the first page. It has a strong focus on the work of Harold Gillies, the pioneering facial surgeon who rebuilt many horrifically injured soldiers’ faces at Queen Mary’s Hospital in Sidcup, which has a special interest for me as it’s where I grew up, so I found it especially fascinating from this perspective. Add into the mix a mystery, complex characters and some lovely evocations of London, and I was  turning the pages at lightning speed!

The main character of the novel is Elinor Brooke, a young art student at the Slade. She has an intense and unusual relationship with her much beloved older brother Toby, a medical student at a neighbouring London university. We are first introduced to the two siblings, as well as Elinor’s friends from the Slade, Kit Neville and Paul Tarrant, and their teacher, the famous artist Henry Tonks, in 1912. Elinor and Toby are struggling to make sense of who they are and where they want their futures to lead. Elinor has great promise as an artist, but she lacks confidence and is confused about her romantic leanings. Toby is a shadowy figure; only ever seen through others’ eyes, he is a brilliant student and his mother’s golden boy, but everything is not quite as it seems and there is a darker current running beneath the perfect facade. Neither imagine that a war will soon interrupt their lives, but just two years later, their worlds will come crashing down. The action soon moves forward to 1917; Toby is at the front, and Elinor is working as an up-and-coming artist in London, and has become an intimate of the Bloomsbury set. One weekend, while visiting her mother at her childhood home in rural Sussex, the dreaded telegraph boy arrives with the devastating news that Toby is missing, believed dead. Elinor is suspicious of the vague information given by the War Office, and when she finds a hidden unfinished letter of Toby’s in his belongings, she sets out to discover more about the circumstances of  his death. She knows that Kit Neville, her Slade friend, was serving with Toby, but she receives no response when she writes to him for further information. Suspecting he is withholding the truth, she enlists the help of their mutual friend Paul, but Kit’s serious wounding shortly afterwards complicates matters, and sends them all on journeys that will change them forever.

Eschewing graphic scenes of war at the front, Barker focuses on Elinor’s grief at losing Toby and her despair at living in a world that no longer makes sense to her. The horror of war is demonstrated through the ravaged faces of the soldiers convalescing at Queen Mary’s, many of whom are so disfigured that the sight of them causes local children to scream and run away. Harold Gillies is attempting to work miracles on men like Kit, who fear they will never be able to resume a normal life or be loved again. Elinor joins her old tutor, Henry Tonks, in painting the men to form a record of their treatment, as she attempts to create a sense of purpose for her days, rebuild her life in the wake of her grief and move on from her brother’s death. However, as she well knows, damage, no matter how well repaired, always leaves a scar behind, and Toby’s death has ripped her apart emotionally to the point where it seems there may be no going back.

In Toby’s Room, Pat Barker highlights one of the great forgotten stories of WWI, while also weaving an absorbing and emotive tale of young people trying to make sense of a world that has crumbled underneath their feet. In a way, this is about those left behind; the army of civilians whose job it was to wait and hope, living their lives separate from but yet completely intertwined with the mud and gore of the booming front that for many in the South of England was often within hearing distance. Elinor’s inability to let her brother go is incredibly moving, and there are certainly many areas of comparison between this and Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, which also explores the grief of WWI and the loss of a man the reader never fully gets to know. It’s not a perfect novel, by any means; the introduction of the Bloomsbury group felt clumsy (the use of Woolf as a character especially felt a little too obvious, considering the title) and I could see the end coming from a mile off, but overall it is a tightly written, thought provoking novel that does what it says on the tin. Barker’s style is not flowery; she is not an overly literary writer, and there are no pretentious word games here. Instead, she writes fluidly, evocatively, simply, letting her story take the lead. She gives the reader the opportunity to learn something new about a period that often feels overdone, and raises questions about the role of women and the role of art in war. It is a sequel to another Barker novel, Life Class, but it stands alone perfectly well, and has left me eager to learn more about the work of Harold Gillies and Henry Tonks. If you’re interested, there is an archive of photographs and paintings of the men who were treated at Queen Mary’s during the war available online here; please do be aware before you click that some of the images are very graphic and could be quite distressing to those of a more sensitive disposition!

Thanks very much to Lija at Penguin for sending me this to review; your kindness is greatly appreciated, as always!