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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