What it is: Toby and Elinor, brother and sister, friends and confidants, are sharers of a dark secret, carried from the summer of 1912 into the battlefields of France and wartime London in 1917.
When Toby is reported ‘Missing, Believed Killed’, another secret casts a lengthening shadow over Elinor’s world: how exactly did Toby die – and why? Elinor’s fellow student Kit Neville was there in the fox-hole when Toby met his fate, but has secrets of his own to keep. Enlisting the help of former lover Paul Tarrant, Elinor determines to uncover the truth. Only then can she finally close the door to Toby’s room.
Moving from the Slade School of Art to Queen Mary’s Hospital, where surgery and art intersect in the rebuilding of the shattered faces of the wounded, Toby’s Room is a riveting drama of identity, damage, intimacy and loss.
Why I read it: I was offered an ARC copy from Penguin UK and I have all three books of the Regeneration Trilogy on shelf and thought it would be great to read something from Pat Barker.
What I thought: I am not sure if it is the larger font size in ARC copy or because of the story, I find this an easy read and captivating. If Pat Barker’s books are like this, I could finish the Regeneration Trilogy in no time.
It helps that I like the protagonist, Elinor, quite a bit. I thought she was unconventional, determined and independent at the era “where men are often surprised when girls spoke directly or behaved confidently. Almost as if they were so used to simpering and giggling they didn’t know how to react (page 61).” Talking to Elinor, Paul feels as if she had been more like a brilliant, egotistical boy than a girl (page 93), which I suspect I may be guilty of.
Every character in this book are interesting, although these characters seem to evolve within their own small little circle and therefore inevitably falls in love with one another. Elinor used to date both Kit Neville and Paul Tarrant. Kit Neville, this larger than life character and in a way enigmatic, proposed to Elinor and possibly Catherine once. Toby Brooke, Elinor’s brother is a Medical Officer at war. Kit Neville is Toby’s stretcher-bearer. The only reason Elinor get back in touch with both Paul and Kit was to find out how her brother died. I can’t help but feel that Paul has been used in the process, although the relationships between these four people (Elinor, Paul, Kit and Catherine) seems to be somewhat vague and elusive and it is up to the readers to decide how much depth their relationships and friendships are and if Kit will spill the bean and tell Paul, which in turn will tell Elinor, about the truth of Toby’s death.
The character Henry Tonks is a real person though. Demanding and good looking, he paints victims who had suffered disfiguration during the war. Read more about him at the bottom of this page.
Reading about the stretcher-bearers, it dawn on me that these stretcher-bearers risk their lives to retrieve injured soldiers from the battle field, including the dead soldiers. There is one particular character in the book that questioned the rationale of risking his life to retrieve dead soldiers from the field, which led me to question the same as well. However, if we think that every dead soldier deserves a proper burial, then we start to think about the how noble a duty of the stretcher-bearers. Not only to save the injured but also gave the dead the honour they deserve.
I haven’t read many WWI stories and I find this fairly refreshing to read something from that period. The war scenes are raw and emotional. Not so much of blood and gore, but emotionally affecting. Most haunting and vivid of all was description of dissecting corpse in the lab and the sufferance of WWI victims in the ward, especially victim who have been disfigured during the war and remain psychologically scarred.
It had become a preoccupation of his – almost an obsession – working out how the war had changed him; other people too, of course. He never managed to talk openly about it, not even to men he’d served with, perhaps because, for him, the changes had been mainly sexual. The young man in the trap had been a romantic: deferential, almost timid, in his approach to women. Three years later, he’d become coarser, less scrupulous, his behaviour verged, at times, on the predatory. For two years, his relationships with Elinor had protected him, but then her letters had become shorter, colder, until eventually she’d stopped writing altogether; after that, he’d regarded himself as free to take what he wanted. – page 88
Getting the final word in:
As the past winner of the Man Booker and Guardian Prize, Pat Barker is a brilliant writer. This is a dark and sad novel, be prepared to expect only the worse to happen. Despite the many positive things I have said about the book, I am not sure if I want to read books which rely on multiple scandals and disgraces to shock. Perhaps I can’t break through my stereotype of associating the war with bravery and honour, not scandal and disgrace. The eventuality of Kit Neville telling the truth is also predictable and as the pages on my right hand becomes fewer, Neville conveniently disclose the truth about Toby’s death.
If this book were a Christmas gift it would be: the experience of unwrapping the multiple layers of paper wrap only to find at the end a gift that is not particularly flattering and you don’t want anyone to know about it.
I would still encourage you to read this.
Have you read the Regeneration Trilogy? or any other of Pat Barker’s novel?
This book is sent by the lovely people at Penguin UK and it will be published on the 30 August 2012.
Paperback. Publisher: Hamish Hamilton August 2012; Length: 263 pages; Setting: 1917 London. Source: ARC Penguin UK. Finished reading at: 16 July 2012.
About the writer:
Pat Barker is one of the UK’s foremost novelists. After the publication of her first novel, Union Street, in 1982, she appeared on Granta’s list of the twenty ‘Best British Novelists,’ alongside Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and Julian Barnes. Her award-winning novels about the First World War, The Regeneration Trilogy, was followed by Life Class (2007), which charts the lives of young artists studying at the Slade School of Art in at the outset of the war. She is pursuing this interest in her current novel which concerns the artist-surgeon, Henry Tonks, whose work is featured in the DLI exhibition, About Face.
Excerpt from About Face in Centre for Medical Humanities blog
The exhibition will feature a display of works by the surgeon artist Henry Tonks. Tonks (1862 – 1937) was a qualified surgeon and an artist, practising and teaching medicine but also producing artistic work and teaching at the Slade School of Fine Art, where he was Professor of Drawing. During the First World War, he initially joined the Royal Army Medical Corps but then, from April 1916, worked with Dr Harold Gillies at his plastic surgery unit at the Cambridge Hospital, Aldershot. This work then moved to a specially dedicated unit at the Queen Mary’s Hospital, Sidcup, where Gillies and his team developed pioneering approaches to facial injuries sustained by soldiers at the front. The pastel drawings by Tonks in this exhibition date from this period and starkly document and illustrate these facial injuries and the progress of surgical interventions. Tonks’ drawings not only serve as a record of the physical injuries and subsequent medical interventions but, by crossing into the field of portraiture, highlight some of the personal and emotional cost of these wounds and reveal Tonks’ skill as an artist. This is the largest loan of his works from the Royal College of Surgeons to date.