Pat Barker – birthday 8th May
Toby’s Room is a companion novel to Life Class, I had thought it was a sequel – but it’s not really, the novel would stand alone. However I am glad I read the novels in this order. In Life Class we met Elinor Brooke, Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville and these characters are central to Toby’s Room as well. When I was reading Life Class I found Elinor a cold and elusive character and after reading Toby’s Room I find she remains just a little out of reach –I am sure this is deliberate.
Toby’s Room opens two years before the events in Life Class – Elinor and her brother Toby have had a special close relationship since they were small, they even look alike – especially once Elinor has cut off her hair. Elinor is an art student at the Slade, studying under surgeon/artist Henry Tonks – a difficult and exacting tutor – who later in the war spends his time drawing portraits of horribly disfigured men. Henry Tonks is a character taken from life – his drawings of wounded men can still be seen today. Toby is a medical student. In the suffocating atmosphere of their family home, their parents leading separate lives, their traditionally married sister rather smug and critical, Elinor and Toby’s relationship is complex, and as the lines between them blur their relationship changes forever.
“Somehow or other they had to get back to the ways things were. What had happened was not something that could be talked about, or explained, or analysed, or in any other way resolved. It could only be forgotten.”
Five years later, and the war has taken its toll on Elinor and her Slade friends. Paul back from France with a permanent limp and in constant pain is more fortunate than some. Toby – who had spent his time serving as a doctor on the front line, patching up the injured – even leaving the relative safety of his post to bring back injured men from the mud of the trenches, constantly putting himself in harm’s way – is “missing presumed dead.” Kit Neville had been part of Toby’s unit – but is now lying in a facial injuries hospital – the hospital where his old tutor Tonks draws the faces of disfigured men.
With Toby missing presumed dead, Elinor has something missing in herself, her grief is raw and terrible. Coldly refusing to have anything to do with the war, the war has finally come to her, with Toby’s death and Paul and Kit’s injuries. Still strongly committed to her art she has produced many landscape paintings of the countryside around their childhood home – in every one there is a shadow, a presence of the brother that is gone. Back in the family home – which is in the process of being broken up – is Toby’s Room, which remains a powerful reminder for Elinor.
“Lying between the sheets, she felt different; her body had turned into bread dough, dough that’s been kneaded and pounded till it’s grey, lumpen, no yeast in it, no lightness, no prospect of rising. Her arms lay stiff by her sides. When, finally, she drifted off to sleep, she dreamt she was on her knees in a corner of the room, trying to vomit without attracting the attention of the person who was asleep on the bed. Her eyes wide open in the darkness, she tried to cast off the dream, but it stayed with her till morning.”
In fact Toby is a constant haunting presence throughout the novel, although he is mainly seen through the memories of Elinor’s artist friends – especially the morphine induced hallucinations of Kit Neville.
When Paul visits Elinor and seeing the paintings she has finished, he is concerned by her apparent obsession to find out exactly what happened to Toby. Having had his belongings returned to the house, Elinor discovers part of an unfinished letter in the lining of Toby’s jacket – which puzzles her. When she writes to Kit Neville – who had served with her brother – she receives no reply. When Kit is returned to England with horrible facial injuries – Elinor insists on going to see him, despite Tonks having warned Paul to leave him alone. At the facial injuries hospital Elinor finds work to do alongside her former tutor – work that bring her into contact with Kit. There is a mystery surrounding Toby’s death, Elinor is convinced of that, and she enlists Paul’s help in finding out what that is.
Toby’s Room is a blistering account of the ravages of war on people, their relationships and – in a departure from other WW1 novels – their art. I love Pat Barker’s writing – and although Life Class and Toby’s Room are not quite as powerful as the utterly brilliant Regeneration trilogy – there are still many beautifully written passages infused with Barkers brilliant understatement, which leave the reader with a host of remarkable images to ponder on.