First published: 2012 by Hamish Hamilton (Penguin ed 2013)
My copy: Bought secondhand in paperback
Memorable quote: “Everything he saw, everything he felt, seemed to be filtered through his memories of the front line, as if a thin wash had been laid over his perceptions of this scene. Columns of sleety rain marched across the fields while, in the distance, grey clouds massed for another attack. Somehow or other he had to connect with the present, but he found it almost impossible. ”
A stand-alone novel rather than a direct sequel, Toby’s Room nonetheless features the same cast of characters as Barker’s Life Class (which I read and reviewed earlier this year); that is, the young artists of the Slade school and their real life teacher, the renowned Henry Tonks. The action takes place in parallel with, and subsequent to, the events of Life Class, again moving from the studios of London to the hospital tents of World War One. A talented artist, Elinor Brooke initially strives not to acknowledge the war, spending her time with Bloomsbury pacifists even while others head to the front: her peers from the Slade, her lover, and even her brother Toby – with whom she shares an unbreakable bond and an unspeakable secret. It is only when Toby is reported “Missing, Believed Killed” that she begins to engage with the reality of the conflict taking place around her. Elinor’s quest to find out the truth about her brother’s death eventually takes her to Sidcup hospital, where the casualties with most severe facial injuries receive treatment and surgery. With Elinor’s grief and need for answers as its narrative driving force, Toby’s Room is a less ambiguous read than Life Class, but it is no less disquieting, exploring, as it does, some complex and harrowing issues.
The most powerful image in Toby’s Room is that of the mask. Tin masks are worn by some of the most disfigured men in Sidcup hospital, where Tonks now works recording these soldiers’ wounds and the painful, painstaking, and not always successful stages of their reconstructive surgery. Among the casualties is Kit Neville, once the arrogant, outspoken toast of the art world. Out in public, the mask he wears shields those around him from the horrifying extent of his disfigurement. But the motionless silvery covering is unnerving; it neutralises all hint of expression and allows the observer’s imagination to run rampant, visualising the ruins beneath. Though Kit’s is the most literal, all the central figures in this novel wear metaphorical masks. Barker examines her characters’ experiences of dislocation, the breach between their inner selves and the faces they show the world as they struggle, variously, to come to terms with their grief, loss, sexuality, the trauma of their wartime experiences or the burden of knowledge that may be better left untold.
Repeating the successful formula of her acclaimed Regeneration novels, Barker’s narrative moves between a hazy hospital present tense and nightmarish recollections of the front, expertly interweaving fictional characters and historical figures such as Tonks. Yet only in a few memorable set piece scenes does Toby’s Room begin to match the devastating emotional clout of that earlier trilogy. Perhaps this is simply because these now tried and tested narrative ingredients no longer feel original. Or is it more a consequence of Barker’s characters? Confused and self-absorbed, Elinor is undoubtedly a challenging creation. While all the characters seem mired to some extent, unable to imagine a future beyond the fighting, Elinor’s circularity brings to the narrative a sense of lethargy. Many families of missing soldiers must have waited in a similar stasis, denied the cathartic outpouring of grief by a basic lack of information. Yet Elinor’s coldness and the mixed messages she sends infect the novel in a more fundamental way, and somehow I found I could not fully invest in her story. It is only in the book’s final third, and in the presence of the engagingly bitter and damaged Kit Neville, that this novel truly comes alive. I could have read more about Sidcup than Barker offers here: more on the hospital’s pioneering surgery and so much more about Kit’s heart-wrenching struggle to re-emerge amongst civilians who can no longer even hold his gaze.
Overall this is a well researched and skilfully written glimpse into the doubled turmoil of coming of age in a wartime context. There’s much to admire here but – to me, at least – its spotlight felt misdirected. Life Class and Toby’s Room are both worth reading but if you only have space in your life for one series of Pat Barker World War One novels, I’d still recommend Regeneration over these more recent forays across that poppy-strewn field.