Book Review: Toby’s Room by Pat Barker

Toby's Room

Title: Toby’s Room

Author: Pat Barker

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin)

Publication Date: 16th August 2012

Paperback: 272 pages

Stand alone or Series? Stand alone

Why did I choose to read this book? Dealing with the topic of the First World War and the effect it had on those who survived will always interest me – plus I got a free copy at the Penguin party.

Where to read? If you have some cash to splash perhaps a beautiful thatched cottage near Winchester like this one. Or perhaps for a more budget option go for a walk and take a pew in a local, country pub (if you’re based in London –The White Swan, Twickenham is lovely)

Refreshments: I would suggest concocting yourself a platter of sandwiches, my plate of choice included ham and cheese & pickle (exciting I know – but nothing really beats a good simple sandwich) to drink pour yourself a refreshing ‘real’ lemonade

It’s 1912 and Elinor Brook is studying art under the tutorage of Henry Tonks along with her new friend Kit Neville however,with the outbreak of war two years later Elinor’s life is turned upside down as the young men in her life, including her lover and brother Toby, are sent to France to fight. When Toby is reported ‘Missing, Believed Killed’, dark secrets invade Elinor’s world as she becomes obsessed with learning the truth over how Toby died. Only then can she finally close the door on her painful and confusing past. Taking us on a journey from the Slade School of Art to the corridors of Queen Mary’s Hospital, where the wounded soldiers meet the art students in an attempt to rebuild their shattered faces, Pat Barker’s latest story is a somber and heart-wrenching historical drama.

If you’re familiar with the works of Pat Barker, in this case her previous book ‘Life Class’, you may recall her artists from the Slade School of Fine Art: Paul Tarrant, Kit Neville and Elinor Brooke and the real life, Henry Tonks. Although, there aren’t any technical links between the two books there are some awkwardly pieced together story lines which come across a bit too vague and forced.

Unsurprisingly, given the title, the central relationship is between Toby and his sister Elinor which given the shocking details of the first chapter is definitely unconventional and maintained beautifully by Barker’s frank honesty throughout the entire story. It is through Elinor’s narrative and sections from her diary that we learn these intricacies, from extreme closeness in 1912 to 1917 when Elinor is possessed by the need to learn the truth from Kit and Paul about Toby’s death. As well by alienating herself to paint, in her old family home away from society, like a grieving widow Barker has created an extremely complex and intriguing character in Elinor

The other characters in the guise of Pat and Kit were equally interesting to read about especially with their return to London after being wounded in the war. This is particularly true for Kit who has been tragically and severely facially disfigured at the front and is being treated at Queen Mary’s Hospital in Sidcup. His experience with dealing with the surgery, his vivid dreams and the reaction of the public to his appearance are both shocking and emotional.

Embarrassingly for me I was unaware of the works of Henry Tonks and the Queen Mary Hospital, so I found it illuminating to learn about their works and the development of their pioneering approaches to reconstructing facial injuries sustained by soldiers fighting at the front. This was my favourite aspect of the book.

Also check out the Gillies Archives were you can take a look at ‘The Tonks Pastels’ of the war heroes.

Finally, I couldn’t do a review without dealing with Toby himself. Although largely we learn about him through the other characters, as he is only present in the first part of the story, for me he wasn’t the most likable of individuals and came across as extremely selfish and not completely worthy of his sister’s affections.The story is slow moving and has many strands to build up Toby’s hidden life and the shocking revelation of how he meets his death in the final pages.

Overall, I enjoyed Barker’s novel especially the examination of the role of art and artists in a time of war and I found the dealing with grief and identity particularly thought-provoking.

Rating: 7 out of 10

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Author Q&A: Lily Koppel ‘The Astronaut Wives Club’

The Astronauts Wives

You can check out my earlier review of The Astronauts Wives Club by clicking on this link.

Q&A with Lily Koppel

The Red Leather Diary – I’ve read that you rescued this from a rubbish bin. Have you since made any other great discoveries from a strange place?

In a way my inspiration for writing The Astronaut Wives Club was another struck-by-lightening chance find. I saw a Life magazine photo of the wives in their skyrocketing beehives, outfitted in their swirling candy-colored Pucci mini-dresses, and turned to my husband, who’s also a writer, and said, “Has a book ever been written about the wives?” I’ve always loved The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, and of course Mad Men, but I never realized how much I wanted to know more about these women until I saw that picture. It was just the tip of the iceberg. I now realize what drew me to those movies and the books was an interest in the personalities, especially the women. When I found out that they actually have a club—and that they raised their families in the Houston “space burbs” near NASA’s operations, in a community known as “Togethersville”—the whole thing was just amazing!

Did this story give you a taste for women’s literature, specifically historical and social commentaries?

I definitely re-read The Feminine Mystique while writing The Astronaut Wives Club, which was an interesting and sometimes even funny read. I also recently read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean-In, which is being touted as the next Feminine Mystique. Although it is serious history, I always wanted it to read like a page-turner.

Did you have a particular interest in the Space Race era or was it something else that drove you towards this subject?

I am not a science writer or “Space Geek” as many NASA fans proudly call themselves. I knew I had to write the book and tell the Astro Wives’ story because it was the emotional side of the space race.

How did you go about tracking down the wives?

I started by visiting the wives across the country, unlocking the secrets of this very exclusive club of women behind the astronauts with the “right stuff.” I was lucky that the women were so forthcoming with me. Now in their 70s, they finally felt it was time to come clean. They told me about their friendships with Jackie Kennedy. Joan Aldrin, Buzz’s wife, gave me her diary to explore, which she kept on the Apollo 11 “Giant Step” world tour as her husband’s life was spiraling out of control. Finally, I sat down at my MacBook and started to write, which all in all took about three years.

Did you bond with any one of the Astronauts wives in particular?

I’ve interviewed extensively and spent heaps of time with America’s Astro Wives (who are scattered across the country like Moon rocks), getting to know them as women and friends. I developed a particular fondness for some of the wives in particular, including Marilyn Lovell, whose husband is Jim “Houston, we have a problem” Lovell from Apollo 13, and her best friend Jane Dreyfus, formally Conrad. Spending a girls’ weekend in Texas with Marilyn Lovell and her best friend Jane Conrad at the Lovells’ home there was particularly special. It was a girls’ slumber party and I really felt I was made honorary Astro Wife. Jim “Houston, we have a problem” Lovell, played by Tom Hanks in Apollo 13, took us for a ride in his Cessna. At night, we kicked back over glasses of wine and I took notes as me and “the gals” sat around talking late into the night in PJs and robes.

Did you speak to the Astronauts to get their impressions or did you want to focus purely on the women?

I met and spoke with many of the Astronauts, who really have an appreciation for the role these women played in the space race. Because it was significant. Even the astronauts said, and it is somewhat metaphorical, but true, “we could not have done it without them. We could not have landed on the moon without them.”

There must have been a lot of information to edit in order to create this book. How did you go about choosing what you wanted to keep in the book?

I let their stories, missions, and characters guide me in an organic way, focusing on the wives who had the most interesting, and at times difficult tales.

There’s a lot of political commentary is this something you also feel passionate about – in terms of Women’s Lib?

I believe that every woman has a superhero tale to tell.

Was there any resistance or negativity when your book was published from NASA for example?

No. People at NASA and the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum have been very supportive. Perhaps some though that the book would be too “gossipy”. Instead I’ve heard that they found a book that “truly highlighted the environment of the American woman during the 1950s through 70s,” as one said.

What’s your favourite word?

Astro (add it to anything, wife, dog, ice cream)

What’s your must-have writing snack?

Chocolate, which is healthy for you, so they say. And my guilty pleasure is Classic Coke.

I hear you have a couple of dogs, what’s your favourite breed of dog and why?

My favourite breed are rescue dogs. That is, no breed at all. Show dogs are cute, but give me a scrappy, loveable mutt and I get puppy eyes. Also our pups, Ozzy and Lucky, are rescue dogs from the real (awfully named) Dead Dog Beach in Puerto Rico and the perfect writing companions.

Can you divulge what your next book will be about?

I remain dedicated to telling unforgettable, never-before-told women’s stories. One of my books in the near future will be a novel I’ve been working on for some time, but I can’t yet give away what it is about.

I would like to thank Lily for taking the time out of her extremely busy publicity tour across America to answer my questions! Buy The Astronauts Wives Club here

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Check out Lily’s website here or follow her on Twitter @lilykoppel

Monsieur le Commandant by Romain Slocombe

Monsieur le CommandantRomain Slocombe

Title: Monsieur le Commandant: A wartime confession.

Author: Romain Slocombe (translated into English by Jesse Browner)

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Gallic Books – specialist in translations.

Publication Date: 16th September 2013.

Paperback: 208 pages

Stand alone or Series? Stand alone

Why did I choose to read this book? Belgravia Books has perfected their email marketing as not only did I end up buying a book but I also recieved an early edition of this one for free!

Where to read? The Parlour Room, at Sketch London. This venue mixes the avant garde style of Paris mixed with the comfortable charm of her cafe culture.

Refreshments: Apologies for another book set in France, however, to drink, you need a strong coffee as this story is not for the faint hearted. To accompany indulge in some delcious homemade (shop bought) cake

Review:

It is autumn 1942 in Paris, Pétain has assumed the presidency and France is occupied by German forces. In this environment of political collaboration and intrigue, French writer, academic and Nazi sympathiser, Paul-Jean Husson pens a letter to his local SS officer detailing an elaborate and scandalous confession that leads to a tragic conclusion.

The writing style of this novella, being that of a letter, makes the story extremely addictive and engaging. The use of the first person account enables Slocombe to develop the character of Husson and provide the reader with an in-depth and terrifying insight into his mind (and that of certain sectors of French society). In addition, it effectively creates the suspense and fear that infiltrated, so completely, this period of French history.

Husson, the main protagonist and central figure of this entire story is a horrific human being. The covetous relationship he has with his daughter in law, Ilse, which forms the key thread of his letter, is vulgar and at times Slocombe’s frank descriptions of Husson’s feelings are shocking.  The letter spans a long period of time as Husson wants to explain the reason behind his ‘confession’. These sections contain justifications for his actions, and the details are illuminating into how collaborationists during the Nazi occupation explained away their behaviours, in particular to the Jewish question.

Throughout the letter, we are also introduced to Husson’s family and the one that stands out is his son Olivier. This is Ilse’s husband who ends up absconding to join the resistance in London thereby leaving his young wife and children to fend for themselves in Paris. At this Husson declares Olivier ‘dead to him,’ a detail that provides him with additional reasoning behind his future actions.

Historically, this was quite obviously a dark period of French social history and Slocombe, born in Paris in the 1950’s to a Jewish mother, much have felt some connection. He has successfully and extremely effectively woven shocking passages of torture and descriptions of the French Gestapo amongst the letter’s pages. These are often unexpected and you’ll find one near the end of the story particularly unpleasant. I was interested to read that this was based on a true story and it was a nice, although sad, addition to have the epilogue of the characters at the end of the book.

Overall, Slocombe has captured the suspense and terror of the period within each page of this novella to create a significant depiction of French collaboration during the Second World War.

Rating: 9.5 out of 10.

Further Reading: