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Pat Barker: Toby’s Room

Pat Barker follows up Life Class with this novel. It is not so much the next in a series but rather overlaps the previous novel, covering different ground. Elinor Brooke is the younger sister of a family of three. Her older sister, Rachel, is married to Tim and has two children, She is, however, much closer to her older brother, Toby. Toby was, in fact, a twin but his twin sister died in the womb. Elinor hero-worships her brother and he, in turn, has always been very devoted to her. Both are studying in London. He is studying medicine to become a doctor, while she is studying art at the Slade. They are currently at home visiting. The year is 1912. Toby and Elinor go out for a walk. While they are out on he walk, Toby suddenly passionately kisses Elinor and cups her breast. She tears herself away. However, that night, she goes to his room and they have sex. This, according to the blurb, is the dark secret they carry.

The rest of the first part follows Elinor at the Slade. In particular, as she is interested in painting humans, she takes a dissection class, at Toby’s suggestion, under the direction of Henry Tonks. At the very end of the first part she meets Paul Tarrant. As we know from Life Class and will soon find out in the second part, she will have an affair with Tarrant. The second part is set in 1917. Paul Tarrant has been injured. Though the injury is not very serious, he will walk with a limp for the rest of his life. In Life Class and, to a certain degree, in the first part of this novel, she had been good friends with another art student, Kit Neville, but they had not had an affair. Neville became a medical dresser and served in Toby’s regiment. When Elinor hears that Toby has been killed, she tries to contact Neville but without success. Elinor had written to Tarrant while in France and, in Life Class, actually visited him but her letters had dropped off. While he was in hospital, she visited him only once and then only for a few minutes, so he was surprised to get an invitation to her house. However, it seems that she is most concerned with getting to Neville through him. However, they soon find out that Neville has been injured as well – hit in the face by shrapnel and losing his nose as a result.

One of the key issues of the book is the role of art in war. Tarrant thinks that it should be there to show the horrors of war. Elinor takes a different view. Asked what she would paint if Toby were killed, she says The last thing I’d want to do is paint any part of what killed him. I’d go home, I’d paint the places we knew and loved when we were growing up together. I’d paint what made him, not what destroyed him. And that is what she does, though her paintings do seem rather bleak. Tonks is famous for his drawings of war wounds and these are also important in the story. The other key issue, probably as in most World War I novels, concerns the horrors of war. Barker shows us men at the front and the suffering they face, not just the physical (though that as well) but also the stress that they are subject to. But she also shows us the wounded and their sufferings, particularly those in Queen Mary’s Hospital, who have face wounds, of which Kit Neville is one example.

As with her previous World War I novels, Barker takes an aspect of the war which others have not dealt with so much, in this case facial wounds and the drawing of them, as well as dealing with the horrors of war. She is clearly on the side of the men, rather than the authorities. World War I is clearly her metier and, once again, she tells a good and interesting story, even if this is not one of the great World War I novels.

Publishing history

First published 2012 by Hamish Hamilton