A Savage Hunger ~ Claire McGowan

img_5978When Alice goes down the rabbit hole she finds herself in a world so different from her own that she has to learn how to read it completely afresh.  When English readers come to a new novel in Claire McGowan’s Paula Maguire series they have to remember that as far as they are concerned Northern Ireland is also a very different world and that they cannot assume they will automatically appreciate the memories that shape either the land or the people who live in it.   A Savage Hunger, the fourth Maguire novel, begins with a memory of Belfast in 1981, a memory of the hunger strikes that saw ten men die in a protest designed to re-establish their status as political prisoners.  If I dredge my memory I can just about recall those deaths.  I might even be able to bring to mind the name of Bobby Sands, who was elected to Parliament while he was on hunger strike.  But I am English and I live in the English Midlands.  If I lived in Northern Ireland I would certainly recall far more: that each death sparked further riots and further casualties, and although this new book is set in 2013 the memory and the casualties are never far from the consciousness of those who still live in what, we should not forget, is a British province.

However, as McGowan reminds us, hunger was a potent force in Ireland as a whole long before even the earlier hunger strikes of 1917.  It was the hunger caused by the potato famine of the 1840s and 50s that caused mass migration from the land.  And, even today, it is a scourge of many younger folk who develop an eating disorder and find themselves wasting away, very often, although they may not realise it, as a protest of their own against being robbed of control over other aspects of their lives.  One such young woman is Alice Morgan, daughter of Lord Morgan and his less than caring wife, Rebecca, student at a very suspect university and previously an inmate of a rehab centre where she had been force fed as a treatment for anorexia.  Alice has gone missing and for all that the PSNI can find out she might just as well have gone down her very own rabbit hole.

The missing persons unit to which Paula was attached as forensic psychologist has been disbanded and its personnel reallocated.  Paula finds herself working with the PSNI in her home town of Ballyterrin and is assigned to look into Alice’s disappearance from a local church, along with a much venerated holy relic, the finger bone of Saint Blannard.  Alice is not the only young woman to have vanished from this location.  On the same day, over thirty years earlier, while the hunger strikers continued their protest, Yvonne O’Neill also went missing and no trace of her has never been found. Given that the chief suspect in that case still lives locally and that his behaviour is highly suspicious, it is natural that the focus of the case should centre at first on him.

Anderson Garrett, now in his sixties, is far more concerned about the disappearance of the relic than he is about Alice, whose plight is clearly of little importance to him when compared with the loss of prestige that his local church might suffer.  In this he is just one of several instances of both individuals and institutions who put their own reputations and convenience above the needs of the young people who are entrusted to their care.  Both the rehab clinic that Alice has attended and the private university at which she is now a student are prime examples of establishments that are in business simply to make money and Rebecca, Alice’s mother, nails her self-centred colours to the mast in a press conference that will long live in the memory.  When we are reminded that it is thought the hunger strikers went on long after terms had been discussed because those organising the protest kept that information from them in order to get greater international coverage, it is clear that one of the main concerns in the novel is the way in which individuals are seen as expendable by those who hold power over them.  And, while that may be an Irish story, it is also one with which readers from any national background can identify.

As in any crime series, running alongside the main plot line is the more personal one of the main character.  Two years have passed since we were last in Ballyterrin and Paula’s daughter, Maggie, is now a lively presence, showing far more enthusiasm for the preparations for ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy’s’ wedding than Paula could ever muster.  There still lingers a doubt, however, about the little girl’s parentage and the questions that Paula has about her own mother’s disappearance also refuse to be put to rest.  Neither issue is completely resolved in this novel although there are indications towards the end as to what the next chapter in both narrative arcs might be.

I have to admit that I am fascinated by Claire McGowan’s books because of the way in which she is attempting to make sense of what it means to be living in Northern Ireland in the wake of the peace process.  However, I would read her work anyway because she is a writer who is growing in strength with each novel and if you haven’t yet encountered this series you have a treat in store.

(With thanks to Headline who made this available for review.)

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The Woman in Blue ~ Elly Griffiths

cover79291-mediumAs far as I am concerned there are few pleasures greater than a new novel from Elly Griffiths in her series featuring forensic archeologist, Ruth Galloway and DCI Harry Nelson.  When the publishers are kind enough to send me a review copy and I get the chance to read it over Christmas, then my cup runneth over.  And, a religious metaphor is more than apt in the case of the Griffiths’ latest offering, The Woman in Blue, which opens with Cathbad, cat-sitting in Walsingham, convinced that he has had a vision of the Virgin Mary walking through the local graveyard.

Now, I am well aware that if you haven’t read any of these novels you are going to find that statement puzzling.  If I add that Cathbad is a druid you might begin to wonder even more.  The back story to this series isn’t one that you can sum up in a few sentences.  All I can suggest is that for the moment you just ride with it and then, when you’ve read this review, give yourself the inestimable pleasure of starting at the beginning and reading all eight books straight through.  You won’t regret it.

In fact, it isn’t the Virgin Mary that Cathbad has seen but a flesh and blood young woman who will be found dead the following morning, setting off a hunt for the murderer that will continue throughout the period of Lent and culminate in the Passion Play celebrations on Good Friday.  Chloe Jenkins, a young model, is a resident at The Sanctuary,  a private hospital specialising in drug rehabilitation, and suspicion for what appears to be her motiveless murder falls initially on another of the hospital patients.  However, the evidence is not entirely convincing and Nelson’s instincts tell him that he probably hasn’t got the right man.  Furthermore, there is also the question of who it is that is writing threatening letters to a friend of Ruth’s, Hilary Smithson, once also an archaeologist but now a priest attending a course in Walsingham on preparing for Episcopacy.  The letter writer has a problem with women becoming priests, let alone bishops.  Is it possible that they and the murderer are one and the same?  When a second body is found and it turns out to be one of the other women priests on the course, the probability seems more likely.

Well, it may not have been the Virgin Mary that Cathbad saw but the question of motherhood and of who has a claim on a mother figure is central to the novel.  It is not only at the heart of the murder investigation but is also influential in respect of the motive behind the threatening letters, whose writer sees women as having a prescribed role in the Christian life, one that centres primarily on the vocation of motherhood.  Griffiths has previously used Ruth’s position as a professional, working, single mother to tackle issues of gender equality.  Here she takes that further and explores the question of what happens when a woman asserts a right to a vocation that has previously been the sole patrimony of men and, in so doing, threatens what they have seen as their right to power.

However, being Griffiths, she addresses what could be controversial subjects with a wit that undercuts any sense of real animosity.  One of the most notable features of this series is the wry humour of the third person narrator, who, reporting events in a crisp present tense, sees all, knows all and casts an ironic eye over all proceedings: a narrator who has a greater claim to omniscience than even Nelson’s Catholic mother.  And as Nelson’s conscience knows, that is saying something.  I could fill pages with examples of the way in which this narrator captures a character or a situation with only a few telling words but to give you a taste I’ll offer just a couple of examples.

Here is Nelson’s Sergeant, Dave Clough, a character whose basic goodness we have steadily learnt to appreciate but who, truth to tell, still has his moments, bemoaning the absence of his co-worker, Judy.

‘She’ll probably bring the baby with her and insist on breastfeeding all over the office.’

That’s the thing about Clough, thinks Ruth, as she says goodbye and follows the signs to the Anglican shrine.  Just when he’s being human, he says something that reminds you what a Neanderthal he can be.  Except that Neanderthals probably had a more enlightened attitude towards breastfeeding.

Bless him, he tries, he really does try.

And then, just to be evenhanded on the gender front, here is Nelson handing out assignments to a rather over zealous young female detective.

He turns to Tanya, who sits up even straighter.  ‘Chloe was doing an online course.  Something to do with angels.  Can you follow it up?  Find out a bit more about it?’

‘Yes, boss.’  Tanya sounds less than enthusiastic to be given the angel brief. Nelson decides to cheer her up.  ‘But first you can go to Walsingham and co-ordinate the scene-of-the-crime search.  They’re concentrating on the area where Chloe’s body was found’.

Tanya brightens immediately.  Co-ordinating is almost as good as being in charge.

Tanya is another one who means well, but who really does have to learn to take herself less seriously.

As a crime writer, Griffiths sits in a sort of middle ground between the cozy and the streetwise.  There is nothing cosy about the murders that Nelson investigates, but this sense of irony that pervades the novels consistently serves to undercut the worst of the horrors.  However, like any good writer of detective fiction she always has something to say about the complexity of the human condition and this very enjoyable novel is no exception.

(With thanks to Quercus who made this available for review.)

The Promise ~ Alison Bruce

The-PromiseOn a number of occasions over the course of Alison Bruce’s Cambridge based police procedural series DI Marks has commented on just how totally impossible it would be to run a team that consisted of half a dozen DC Goodhew clones. Personally, I have always wondered how he manages with just one. Not that I dislike Bruce’s lead character, Gary Goodhew. It would be hard to dislike a young man who is so clearly devoted to bringing justice to those who have suffered at the hands of some seriously vicious murderers.  However, following the leaps of understanding that his mind makes and the consequent byways he explores, often directly against orders, demands a certain amount of mental dexterity on the part of the reader and a lot of tolerance on the part of DI Marks.  I have worked in hierarchical situations where Goodhew wouldn’t have lasted a week.  I suppose the clear-up rate which he has been responsible for over the course of the last six novels has helped and in this latest instalment, The Promise, the fact that this includes not just the immediate murder but also unsolved crimes from the past has to be a factor in his favour as well.

The current murder, and the one which brings Gary back to work before he is officially considered fully recovered from the fall that made him question his place in the police service for himself, is that of Ratty, a homeless man who has, in the past, offered information that Goodhew has been able to use in his pursuit of justice.  Gary is concerned that his immediate superior, DS Kincaide, will not investigate the crime with the resolve that he thinks it deserves simply because of Ratty’s standing (or lack thereof) in the community.  He is, of course, right to be so concerned.  If a team made up of Gary Goodhews is a scary prospect, one composed entirely of the Kincaides of this world is downright depressing.  Good at cutting corners, not beyond tampering with the evidence and a menace to any woman he happens to take a fancy to, DS Kincaide makes you despair for the police service.  Thank goodness then for Goodhew and the ever developing PC Sue Gully who recognise not only that Ratty deserves as much consideration as the next victim but also that the horrific facial mutilation he has suffered suggests that he is unlikely to have been the killer’s first target.  Their search for the motive behind the killings and the significance of the mutilations takes them through the back streets of Cambridge and into the murky world of the lock-up garage. Just how many are there?  And what do they contain?

Alongside the main investigation Bruce runs the continuing story of Goodhew’s background.  Over the course of the preceding novels we have gradually learnt more of why he has been brought up in the main by his formidable grandmother and in this novel we start to uncover the enigma behind his grandfather’s death and the role that DI Marks played in the subsequent investigation.  The book concludes with Gary finally managing to recall what his part in those events was and, knowing his determination to get to the bottom of any mystery, I would imagine that the next in the series will see him following his own instincts to discover what actually happened to Goodhew Senior.  Whether or not he will do that from within the police service is, of course, another matter.  DI Marks has taken retirement and the possibility of finding another superior officer willing to give Goodhew the licence he has so far enjoyed seems to me to push the boundaries of credibility just a wee bit too far.  Nevertheless, I shall be there to find out and hope that we don’t have to wait quite as long for the next novel as we had to for this.

(With thanks to Little Brown Book Group who made this available for review.)

Sunday Round-Up

341df81e231750e5c7f0523db256ffa3I was hoping to get several more reviews written over the course of this past week but, as so often happens, life got in the way, so in lieu I’ll just offer a few quick thoughts about the two most recent book group discussions on Ian McEwan’s The Children Act and David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

The group with which I read The Children Act were most exercised by whether or not the main character, Fiona Maye, was believable. For me, however, this wasn’t really the issue.  I think I’ve reached the point where I just accept that McEwan has no idea how women think and behave and so I let that stand as a given and concentrate on what else I think he is concerned with.  In this novel I was more interested in what it was he was trying to say about the law and the individual’s relationship with it.  It seems clear to me that this is his primary interest.  Why else start with what is an overt reference to Dickens’ Bleak House?

London.  Trinity term one week old.  Implacable June weather.

I decided in the end that what McEwan was trying to examine was the way in which, even in situations where our children’s wellbeing is at stake, we want to place the onus of decision onto an outside body, despite the fact that, in his opinion, this is to abdicate our personal responsibility.  He offers several examples of families passing through the courts whose children are in need of medical or educational intervention and in each instance there is a sense of parental relief when the outcome is decided by someone else.  However, he also provides examples of two such cases where the judge concerned has made a mistake that has had life long repercussions for the families involved and his ffinal* verdict on Fiona appears to be that she needs to recognise her responsibility to exercise judgment in her behaviour towards children outside of the trappings of the court as well as within.

There are a lot of seems and appears in that because I don’t think McEwan manages to make his point of view clear, possibly because, as so many of the group recognised, he doesn’t make Fiona herself believable.  And, while I don’t disagree with the idea that we all need to take responsibility for the welfare of society in general and especially of children, I’m also bothered by an approach which seems to question the centrality of the judiciary.  Yes, they sometimes get it wrong, but what happens if you take the law away?  I have run across a number of literary instances recently that very strongly make the point that if the law is bent, neglected or personalised then the very pillars on which society stands are threatened.  I’m teaching The Merchant of Venice this term and not only The Duke and Balthazar/Portia recognise the irretrievable damage that will be done to the State if Shylock is denied his bond, so too does Antonio, who very definitely has the most to lose.  Then, it’s not long since I reviewed Claire McGowan’s latest Northern Ireland based novel, The Silent Dead, where the question of retaliatory ‘justice’ is foregrounded and in which the ffinal* judgment is that however fflawed* the justice system might sometimes be it is infinitely superior to what would happen if there was no system at all.  And I have never been able to forget the conversation between Thomas More and his son-in-law in Robert Bolt’s play A Man For All Seasons:

Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

We take decisions out of the hands of the law at our own peril, I think.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was a much happier reading experience. I was so glad that this had been chosen because I have been trying to ffind* time to read more David Mitchell ever since being bowled over by The Bone Clocks, however, he is not a writer you can hurry and there just hasn’t been a large enough space when I could explore his earlier novels.

As far as Mitchell goes, this, I understand, is a comparatively straightforward narrative, although exploring a complexity of issues, mostly to do with the question of translation.  Many of the main characters in the novel are interpreters who work for the Japanese state as linguistic go-betweens for the ruling powers and the Dutch traders of the late eighteenth century.  But, while they may haltingly fffind* the words for a literal translation, interpreting the society behind the words is a very different matter.  Even as the novel draws to a close the reader is left puzzling over a nation that can be so isolationist that it will not allow a son who is half Japanese and whose mother is dead to leave to be with his Dutch father.  The writing is beautiful, the characterisation superb, but it is a solid read, so don’t embark on it unless you have the time to give it the attention it deserves.

I hope the forthcoming week is going to be slightly easier, especially as I’ve already got behind in my course on Dorothy L Sayers and could do with a few spare hours to catch up.  I have discovered, however, that it is possible to have too much of a good thing even where books are concerned, and my reading of the Wimsey novels has slowed considerably.  In particular, I fell foul of Five Red Herrings, which I seem to remember not being very keen on when I read the books the ffirst* time round.  I’m now half way through Have His Carcase and should really do my best to ffinish* it over the weekend.   What are your plans for a damp and soggy Sunday afternoon, I wonder?

N.B.  I do know how to spell the words marked thus*, but the WordPress program is refusing to spell them with just one ‘f’.  It’s two or nothing, so I have chosen to go for two.  Is anyone else having this problem?

Year of the Fat Knight ~ Antony Sher

51Sdn5uTyaL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_As you will by now have gathered Shakespeare is big in my life. And, because I live only an hour’s drive away from Stratford, the same is true of the Royal Shakespeare Company.  I saw them on stage for the first time in 1962 and have been a constant visitor ever since.  I have dozens of memorable productions stowed away in my memory and not a few of them have features performances by Antony Sher.

Now, I know that Sher is something of a marmite actor: you love him, or you hate him.  I have one friend who refuses to see any further performances of Richard III because she wants nothing to diminish her memory of his 1984 interpretation.  I have other friends who pointedly avoid anything he’s in.  Personally, I am a fan.

I first saw Sher in 1982 playing the Fool to Michael Gambon’s Lear.  This was not long after I had started out on what was to prove to be a nineteen year marathon during which I studied for three successive degrees at the same time as holding down a full-time job.  Going to the theatre was about the only other activity I found time for and over that period of nearly two decades Tony Sher was one of a small number of actors who never failed to stimulate me and send me out of the theatre with new ideas careering round my brain. I didn’t always agree with his interpretations (the least said about his Malvolio the better) but he was never there just to make up the numbers.  It was fitting, then, if completely unexpected, to turn up for my third and final graduation ceremony and find that he was the Honorary Graduand.  He gave a speech that day which managed to turn what had been threatening to be a very embarrassing morning, centred round a hard-nosed plea for money from the university’s Chancellor, into what it should have been, a celebration of the achievements of the young people who had worked so hard and long for their degrees.  I wrote to him afterwards to thank him and received a very generous response.  As I say, I am a fan.

I am always glad then to see another in his series of diary accounts chronicling his journey towards the creation of a new part.  There have now been three of these:  The Year of the KingWozza Shakespeare, and most recently, Year of the Fat Knight.  The first was concerned with Richard III, the second, written jointly with his partner, Greg Doran, focused on a production of Titus Andronicus staged in post Apartheid South Africa, and the third about the current production of the Henry IVs.

I love the Henry IVs.  They are up there amongst my favourite plays, especially Part II, which I think has a melancholy all of its own.  And, I have seen some cracking productions over the years.  So I was delighted when they were announced for the 2014 season with Sher cast as the reprobate, Falstaff.  I didn’t share the doubts about his ability to play the role that he seems to have had and in fact, the early sections of this journal centre around the question of whether or not he is going to agree to take the part on.  Some of the most interesting discussion focuses on why many of our greatest character actors have refused to agree to play Falstaff.  Both Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellen had turned it down before it was offered to Sher and neither Olivier nor Gielgud ever played the part.  As Sher says Gielgud would have been the Don Quixote of Falstaffs and like him I’d have paid blood to see [Scofield] do it.

Once committed to the role Sher sets about discovering the Falstaff he can play and we go on the journey with him as he mines the text for indications of what it is that makes the fat knight recognisable to us as a real human being.  This is a painstaking process and for someone like me, who is of an age with the actor, one I can empathise with, especially when he talks about the growing difficulty of learning lines.  I didn’t think that there was as much analysis of the part and of the plays as there had been in the earlier books and felt this as a loss, but there is still much discussion of the rehearsal process and given that he was talking about people I have become familiar with over the past couple of seasons and spaces that I know very well, the book was nevertheless a very enjoyable read.

The added bonus where this journal is concerned is that it is now possible to go back and watch the plays again in the light of the journey Sher has laid before us.  Recordings are available and although they will never quite catch the magic of the live performance it’s a darn sight better than not being able to see it at all.  If you are a lover of Shakespeare or simply a lover of the theatre in general then I recommend a weekend spent with this book and the DVDs of the two plays.  You won’t regret the time spent.

A Spool of Blue Thread ~ Anne Tyler

51IxhCyQpLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_About a third of the way through Anne Tyler latest novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, the entire Whitshank family set off to spend a week at the beach.  This isn’t a spur of the moment vacation.  Not only do the Whitshanks spend the same week on the Delaware coast every summer, they spend it in the same house.  And, they are not the only family with fixed habits when it comes to taking a holiday.

“The next-door people are back,” Jeannie called, stepping in from the screen porch.

Next door was almost the only house as unassuming as theirs was, and the people she was referring to had been renting it for at least as long as the Whitshanks had been renting theirs.  Oddly enough, though, the two families never socialized.

They may not socialise, but the Whitshanks do speculate about the nature of the family and watch for changes year by year.

[T]hey continued to come, the mother taking her early morning walks along the beach…the daughters in the company of boyfriends who metamorphosed into husbands, by and by, and then a little boy appearing and later a little girl.

“The grandson has brought a friend this year,” Jeannie reported.  “Oh, that makes me want to cry.”

“Cry! What for?” Hugh asked her.

“It’s the … circularity, I guess.  When we first saw the next-door people the daughters were the ones bringing friends, and now the grandson is, and it starts all over again.”

“You sure have given these folks a lot of thought,” Hugh said.

“Well, they’re us, in a way,” Jeannie said.

And, just as the Whitshanks watch the changes in the next-door family so we, the readers, do the same for them. When the book begins we have as unfocused a notion of the dynamics in Tyler’s Baltimore family as their holiday neighbours do.  Do we

find the Whitshanks attractive?  Intriguing?  [Do we] admire their large numbers and their closeness? Or [have we] noticed a hidden crack somewhere?

Well, if we haven’t noticed the crack, indeed the cracks, by the time we read about the annual holiday then we haven’t been paying enough attention, because what Tyler gives us in this novel is a portrait of an apparently stable, loving family that unwinds as we observe it.  Like a spool of thread which, when first purchased, appears tightly bound and compact, the moment you start to pull at a loose end the whole structure begins to fall apart. What is more, once that has happened, you can never rewind and recover the sense of completeness and perfection that you had before.  Indeed one crack exposes another and then another until there is little left of the image with which you began.

The process begins slowly enough.  We are aware from early on that the elder Whitshank boy, Denny, is a source of family disquiet, but it isn’t until Denny himself, in a reported conversation with Abby, his mother, drops the bombshell that Stem, the youngest Whitshank, is in fact not a Whitshank at all, that the process really begins to gain momentum.  And from then on in we watch as all that we have been led to believe about the stability of the family, all the stories that they have told about the Whitshank past, the stories on which their sense of who they are is built, crumbles before our eyes.  We move back through the generations, discovering at each stage how different the reality of the Whitshank’s family history is from the picture that they present to the world.

And yet, they are still Whitshanks.  Oh, it may be Stem, the abandoned child, who shares their name but not their blood, who takes on that family name in the form of the business, but it the end it is Denny who proves himself to be the direct descendent of those first Baltimore Whitshanks, Junior and Linnie Mae.  In a reflection of the circularity that Jeannie recognised in their beach-side neighbours, the novel concludes with Denny’s return to a woman who clearly loves him but to whom, in an echo of his grandfather’s earlier behaviour, he has been unable to commit, and we are left with the sense that perhaps this time he really will be able to build a relationship that has some lasting stability.  It may not be as strong or as perfect as they would like the world to think, but it will have a utility out which a future can be forged.   Some of that trailing thread is being rewound and while it may not be possible to return it to its original pristine condition it will serve for the day to day purpose of holding a family together.

While the Whitshanks may not be the picture of family perfection that they would like to appear, Tyler’s depiction of them comes pretty close to perfection.  Time and again I found myself drawing parallels between situations in either my own family or those of people to whom I am close enough to have been allowed to see the cracks.  And for me, I think her greatest achievement is the sense of hope that she provides for such families.  Because, despite the flaws, the difficulties, the betrayals, that we witness, in the end we recognise there is still love in this family, there is still mutual support, there is still a sense that while the thread may not be as tightly bound as it could be, they are all part of that same spool.  This may be a novel that charts our growing awareness, as outsiders, of the dysfunctional nature of the Whitshank family, but ultimately it is also a novel that says, in fact, any family at which you look closely is probably going to be pretty dysfunctional one way and another.  But you know what?  In the end they are going to survive because they are bound by that blue thread and as long as it isn’t actually severed it can be wound back in and remain whole.  And, as Jeannie points out, the family we are observing is us, in a way, which means that Tyler is also saying that there is a good chance for the survival of any family, just so long as you’re willing to hold on tight to the end of that spool of blue thread.

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.’

Exactly.