Toby’s Room, by Pat Barker
Toby’s Room is the newest novel by Booker Prize winning author Pat Barker, best known for her Regeneration trilogy.
The novel opens in the summer of 1912 with a young woman named Elinor Brooke, who has returned to her childhood home from her lodgings in London. Intent on becoming a painter, she has been living in the city whilst she attends the Slade School of Art, and is determined to hold onto ‘the first few spindly shoots of independence’ which she has gained since moving away.
We are catapulted into her family dynamic from the outset, and the atmosphere in the Brooke household which Barker has built up seems incredibly strained. Elinor’s parents ‘saw very little of each other. She needed country air for the sake of her health; he lived at his club’. Elinor, who is almost continually chastised by her terse elder sister Rachel, is closest to her brother: ‘… she and Toby were the only members of the family who kept no secrets from each other’. The relationship between the siblings is rather a tumultuous one. One of the first scenes in the book describes how, whilst out on a walk, Toby begins to passionately kiss his sister, and, despite first pushing him away, she suddenly ‘felt herself softening, flowing towards him, as if something hard and impacted in the pit of her stomach had begun to melt’.
Barker states that ‘all her life, Elinor had been brought up not to know things, but not knowing didn’t keep you safe’. Indeed, Elinor is left in a crisis once the aftermath of Toby’s actions and his possible intentions towards her come to light. She does not know how to act or what to do in order to distance herself from him completely, and is forced to search for her own identity in an increasingly confusing world.
The second part of the novel opens in 1917 on a hospital train as it ‘crawled through the fields of Kent’. The character of Paul Tennant, a former lover of Elinor’s, is introduced. He is badly wounded, ‘strapped to a stretcher, staring up at the station roof where hundreds of bright-eyed pigeons cocked their heads at the noise and confusion below’.
Toby’s death is also stated rather matter-of-factly in the second part of the novel: ‘For stretches of time he might not have died at all. He wasn’t present, but then he hadn’t been present for most of the past two years. There was no body. No grave. No ceremony’. One of the most moving moments – perhaps the only moving moment – in the entire book is when his possessions are sent back to his family in ‘a big brown-paper parcel entwined with thick, hairy string’. Elinor becomes fixated by the way in which her brother died, unable to just accept his death as a condition of war.
Whilst the majority of the characters in Toby’s Room are purely fictional creations, Barker has placed several real-life figures into the novel. These include Virginia Woolf and Henry Tonks, whose pastel drawings which record the facial injuries sustained by soldiers during the First World War are now held at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. This blurred divide between fact and fiction is an interesting technique to use, but it is unclear as to which elements featuring real-life characters have been crafted entirely by the author.
A third person omniscient perspective is used throughout the novel. The narrative voice which Barker has used is quite chatty and feels overly informal at times. Some of the dialogue between characters, too, feels rather too modern for the period in which the novel is set. Extracts from Elinor’s diary are also woven into the book. Again, her narrative voice feels too modern and colloquial in its style and does not fit with the period. The reader is rather detached from the characters throughout, perhaps because of Barker’s chosen narrative style. Elinor’s own narrative voice does not really add anything personal to the story, but more or less reiterates what has already been stated. Some compassion for her is felt, but in the grand scheme of things, the reader is incredibly removed from her.
Barker’s writing style works well overall, and she is particularly skilled at describing squalor, death and decay. The majority of the novel uses well written and rather confident prose, but this technique does not seem to have been used consistently. Whereas some of the passages are beautifully and startlingly written, some of the other paragraphs fall rather flat.
The story itself is an interesting one, but in no way is Toby’s Room as engrossing or absorbing as it could be. No real sense of place is created in the novel, until France is described quite a way through. Despite its World War One setting, parts of the book do not seem to be culturally grounded. Whilst the themes are far-reaching – death, disability, adapting to wartime conditions, the loss of innocence and the occasional regression back to helplessness – the actual execution of these themes does not do them justice.