Toby's Room opens in the July of 1917, three years after the events of Life Class. Elinor Brooke is still painting, but her brother Toby is shipping out to the front as a Medical Officer, a fact that she cannot bring herself to accept. Toby finds himself on the same Channel crossing as Kit Neville, a close friend - and aspiring suitor - of Elinor's from before the war. Intent on cementing his reputation as an artist, Kit never intended to serve overseas. Conscripted nonetheless, he becomes a stretcher-bearer assigned to assist Toby. It's exhausting, dangerous work, and Kit resents Toby's frequent decisions to risk their own lives in attempting to save the wounded.
Confronted daily by their mortality, both men find solace in sexual exploits, but Toby pushes the envelope further by seeking out men, risking a great deal in the process. When Kit sees Toby having sex with another soldier in the ruins of Ypres, he tells the chaplain. Two days later, Toby goes missing (presumed dead) during a bombardment as he runs to the aid of a soldier.
News of her missing brother destroys the indifference Elinor has cultivated for so long. She tracks down Kit, who is by now wounded and back in London, but she doesn't believe his version of events. That Kit is cracking up doesn't help; he is soon transferred to a convalescent home where he goes spectacularly mad. Elinor instead turns to her German friend Catherine for comfort, even as Catherine struggles to cope with her own burdens, not least her nationality.
Pat Barker is one of Britain's very finest novelists, and in Toby's Room she once again demonstrates her ability to eloquently convey simple, moving truths. A multi-layered exploration of identity, Toby's Room develops the already empathetic and engaging characters of Life Class, exploring at all levels - and across all divides - what it means to be human.
©2012 Pat Barker (P)2012 AudioGO
As a fan of Barker's brilliant Regeneration series, I had high hopes for Toby's Room, but I confess to being somewhat underwhelmed. Art student Elinor Brooke, familiar to readers of Life Class, returns at the heart of the story. World War I is peering over the horizon but has not yet crossed the English shores, and Elinor's greatest concerns are her art classes at the Slade, her parents' dissolving marriage, and her close relationship with her older brother Toby. But something disturbing happens, causing a rupture that brother and sister can never quite repair. Still, Elinor persists with her classes and Toby finished his medical degree. And then the war takes over.
Fast forward a few years. Toby has signed up as a medic and is serving in France, and Elinor is getting a bit bored with the Slade, uncertain of what she will do when her studies are completed. News comes that Toby has gone missing in action and is presumed dead. Shortly after, a package with his belongings arrives, and Elinor finds a brief note among them, addressed to her. In it, Toby mysteriously reveals that he won't be coming back. Convinced that he must still be alive, Elinor sets out to solve the mystery. She enlists the help of Paul Tarrant, a fellow Slade student and former lover who has just returned from the war with a severe leg injury, and the two of them focus on another former student, Kit Neville, who served with Toby as a stretcher bearer. Kit is among the patients of Dr. Harold Gillies (a factual person, the 'father' of modern plastic surgery) at Queen Mary Hospital, all of whom have suffered traumatic facial injuries.
Fortunately for Elinor, she is offered a job by Henry Tonks (another real person), her former professor, drawing the faces of the injured. The purpose of the drawings is educational: to assist Dr. Gillies in facial reconstruction and to create an archive of his efforts for other surgeons. In this capacity, she is able to visit Kit, but he is either unable or unwilling to tell her anything about Toby's apparent demise. Paul strikes up an uneasy friendship with Kit, partly out of sympathy for a fellow artist and wounded warrior, but partly in hopes of aiding Elinor.
The truth is finally revealed in the last pages of the book. Don't worry--no spoilers here. But I am rather puzzled at just how Toby got from Point A to Point C. Barker seems to imply a cause-and-effect between two events that just doesn't make sense to me. Putting that aside, however, there are many things to commend in Toby's Room. The characters are well drawn and, as always, Barker gives us a portrait of war and its effects on human lives that is both brutal and poignant. While I can't recommend this novel as highly as Regeneration, it is certainly worth reading, especially for Barker fans or for those interested in the impact of the war on those at home and the extraordinary efforts to mend the wounded.
The reader, Nicola Barber, is very well cast and does a fine job.
The reader of this book did an excellent job of narrating and interpreting the characters. She added to my experience of reading, and I think I enjoyed it more than I would have enjoyed it if I had read the print version.
The dissection scenes are highly memorable, though certainly not my favorite. They, as well as the graphic descriptions of one of the character's facial wound, will stay with me for a long time. Barker has done a lot of research into all aspects of WWI and its effects on soldiers and those on the homefront, and she is able to provide highly realistic scenarios and characters.
I don't know. It reminds me of Virginia Woolf's "Jacob's Room," which is a WWI war novel of sorts. And Woolf's brother's name was Thoby. I think Barker alludes to these with this title, which seems highly appropriate to me. And it works for Barker's novel thematically as well.
I liked this book better than "Life Class," the book that preceded this sequel. I think it might be because "Toby's Room" is from Elinor's point of view rather than Paul's. I liked the female "take" on events.
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