Toby’s Room ~ Pat Barker

tobys-roomIt is very rare for me to have the opportunity to read through a trilogy in one go.  Normally, especially with a writer whose works I already know, I will pick up the first novel when it comes out and then have to wait a year a two for the next in the series to appear.  When that second volume is published there is then the dilemma as to whether or not I should re-read number one or hope that I can remember enough of the earlier book and just dive straight in.  The problem, of course, is then doubled when the final episode arrives.  Well, I have no excuse to offer as to why I neglected the earlier volumes in Pat Barker’s second trilogy about the effects of war.  I just didn’t get round to it.  But, now that Noonday is available, I am in the luxurious position of being able to read all three pretty much one after the other.

Toby’s Room is the second book in this trilogy and for me it is far more powerful than the first.  It is concerned with three main questions: the role of art in war, the role of women in war and the need to confront the reality of what warfare does to the human being.

The Toby of the title is Elinor Brooks elder brother, although there is also a nod towards Virginia Woolf’s novel Jacob’s Room which owed much to her brother, Thoby.  Like Thoby Stephens, Toby Brooks, a medical officer in the First World War, dies much too young, apparently killed in action in 1917. What haunts Elinor is the fact that he has been reported ‘missing presumed dead’ and, although she retains no real hope that he will turn up alive, she is desperate to know what actually happened to him.  In her attempts to discover this,despite the fact that she has almost dropped their acquaintance, she turns to two fellow Slade students, Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville.

Both Tarrant and Neville have themselves been injured.  Tarrant has a leg wound which precludes him from going back to the front but, having been commissioned as a war artist, is still doing war work.  Neville is hoping for a similar appointment however his recovery is going to be a far longer process. He has taken a shrapnel wound to the face and is brought to the Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup where he is attended to by Harold Gillies, the New Zealand surgeon celebrated as the founder of modern plastic surgery.  For both Tarrant and Neville the dilemma in respect of their artistic commission is what can they possibly paint.  There are subjects that are officially forbidden to them.  Certainly there can be no direct representation of anything that suggests the true horror and suffering that the soldiers are experiencing. When, through Paul’s eyes, we finally get a glimpse of the canvas Neville has begun it is no surprise to find that he has completely ignored orders.  Given what we know of him from the previous novel we would be disappointed if he were to have done anything else.  Paul, on the other hand, returns to the genre he has always felt most comfortable with, landscape.  However, as Neville points out, his landscapes are bodies.  The wounds of the land have become one with the wounds of the people.  Citing the legend of the Fisher King, Paul says

the wound and the wasteland are the same thing.  They aren’t metaphors for each other, it’s closer than that.

The fertility of future generations is in ruins whichever way you look at it.

One form of art which is permissible is that which is being practised by Henry Tonks within the confines of Queens.  In order to further medical advancement, he is making drawings of the wounds which the returning soldiers have suffered and of the process of reconstruction they undergo at the hands of Gillies.  For me this is where Barker is at her best.  While, just as was the case in Regeneration, she is not prepared to let the reader look away from the true horror of war, at the same time there is nothing voyeuristic about her descriptions of the truly horrendous wounds these men have suffered.  She simply asks that you have the courage to quite literally look their suffering in the face.  For the first time I found myself able to seek out the sketches that Tonks made and which can be found online by googling Faces of Battle.

When Elinor attempts to visit Neville at Queens she encounters her former teacher and he encourages her to join him in his work but at first she refuses saying that she wants nothing to do with the war, becoming involved in any way would be to legitimise what she sees as a conflict created by men.  I found Elinor a difficult character to empathise with in this novel.  She walks a very thin line between insisting that women should have the same rights as men (no problem there) and simply demanding that whatever she wants she should be able to have. When she insists on questioning Neville about Toby’s death as soon as she hears he that he has returned to England, dismissing as unimportant the suffering that he is going through, I lost all patience with her.  Selfish little besom was about the politest thing I called her.

That isn’t to say, however, that she doesn’t work as a character, indeed Barker uses her as she did Paul in Life Class to draw a valuable parallel between the world of art and real life.  In the previous novel that parallel was between the plaster cast models of body parts in the Slade and the only too real amputations Paul faced as an orderly in the French clearing stations. Here the comparison is between Elinor’s time spent in the dissection room learning how to take a body to pieces and the work that she does eventually take up using her art to help in the reconstruction of the body.  In accepting Tonks’ challenge perhaps she does to some extent redeem herself.

Ultimately, for me, however, the most important facet of the novel is the manner in which Barker insists that the reader turn away from any romanticised notion of war and recognise not only the reality of the suffering but the extraordinary bravery of the injured, of the mutilated. Perhaps surprisingly she does this through Kit Neville,  summing up the reader’s own response in Paul’s words to Elinor.

You know, before the war I used to think he was incredibly self-pitying, because, let’s face it, he had it a lot easier than most.  And yet there he is, no nose, quite a lot of pain…Not that he ever mentions it, but…Well, I know the signs.  Facing God knows how many more operations, and there isn’t a trace of self-pity.  I mean, he’s actually quite funny about it now and then.

I didn’t expect to end this novel cheering for Kit, but I’m glad I can, especially as it is his own special brand of humour that really sums up the way that Barker appears to feel about romanticising war.  When the men being treated at Queen’s first go out in public they are given the option of wearing a mask. The most popular is one made in the likeness of Rupert Brooke.

Neville was already inside the cab.  Paul followed him in and gave the address.  A sharp intake of breath from the driver as he turned and saw the mask, but his response was calm, if unpredictable.

‘I had him in my cab once’.

‘Who?’ Neville asked.

‘Rupert Brooke.  He was good, him.  “There’s some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England’.’

‘That would be the bit with my nose under it.’


6 thoughts on “Toby’s Room ~ Pat Barker

  1. I loved reading your thoughts about this book – I agree Toby’s Room is more powerful than Life Class. I also Googled those Tonk’s sketches. I hope you love the third book too – I think it’s even better than this one.

    1. The sketches are really impressive, aren’t they Ali? I don’t think I could have looked at them before but because I did so in conjunction with reading about what Tonks and, more importantly, Gillies, were doing I found them remarkable. I’ve just picked up Noonday from the library but I don’t think I shall be taking it with me to Denver Castle. I would hate to distress Lord Peter by reminding him of his wartime experiences.

  2. A while ago I decided it might be interesting to read through all the previous shortlists for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction (I’m thinking of it as a project rather than a challenge). Toby’s Room was shortlisted in 2013, but as it’s part of a trilogy, I’m obviously going to have to do more reading than I’d originally expected! I’m glad you liked this one – I’ll look forward to reading it after I’ve read Life Class.

    1. They are both very well worth reading, Helen and because you will come to Life Class first you won’t think of it as any less a novel because you won’t at that point have Toby’s Room to compare it with. I’ve just picked up the third book, Noonday, from the library but I think that will have to wait now until I’ve finished my sojourn at Denver Castle.

  3. Time for me to pull the Pat Barker novels off my shelves and read them. I have the Regeneration trilogy, so will start there. I will then find this trilogy. I am enjoying catching up with you through your blog posts 🙂

    1. Toby’s Room is the novel in this trilogy which I found most like Regeneration, Sharon. There is the same refusal to indulge in either pity to self-pity mainly on the grounds that such feelings take up time and energy that would be better spent helping to do something about the situation. I’m just hoping Noonday will keep up the same standard.

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