A second look at Toby’s Room, by Pat Barker
Desperate to break away from the shackles of her repressive [and, indeed, repressed] family and establish herself as a thoroughly modern young lady, Elinor Brooke moved to London and enrolled at the Slade School of Art. Gleeful to be living on her own and finally able to see progress in her art, Elinor is nevertheless still occasionally drawn back to the family home. It’s a home full of secrets, perhaps not always particularly earth-shattering ones, where much is left unsaid and Elinor is really only able to tolerate the atmosphere there due to the presence of her brother Toby. Then, during an otherwise unexceptional weekend in 1912, Elinor and Toby become embroiled in a secret of their own, a secret that will echo about their lives for years to come.
A secret so powerful in fact that it still has a bearing when the story of Toby’s Room moves on to the battlefields of France and wartime London in 1917. The real Toby is gone from Elinor’s life now. He was reported as ‘Missing, Believed Killed’ while serving as an officer in France but, since no body was actually found, Elinor can’t quite let the spirit of Toby go. She is convinced that there is more to Toby’s death than can be conveyed in the official cable and so she enlists the help of ex-love and fellow artist Paul Tarrant in uncovering the truth. As it happens, there is one person who might know what happened to Toby – Elinor’s fellow Slade student and one time toast of the London art scene Kit Neville was in the foxhole with Toby when he met his fate.
Although almost a follow-up to Life Class, Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room is not a direct sequel and so it is not necessary to have read the earlier novel in order to enjoy and understand the latter. However, Toby’s Room does revisit the Slade School and reintroduce Elinor Brooke, Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville and so provides a welcome update on well-established characters. Elinor is perhaps a little more infuriating in Toby’s Room, she’s certainly quite exceptionally selfish and single-minded, but she does remain sympathetic. Kit Neville is still as acerbic as ever but his experiences in the Great War have changed him. Those who knew him before he was injured will recognise that his confidence is shaken even if his bravado would fool many. Paul Tarrant has arguably changed the least, perhaps because he was much more of an ‘everyman’ than the others and was less prone to radical, impassioned if misguided, outbursts.
All three of these artists are forced to confront great change during Toby’s Room. Tarrant and Neville are both severely injured during combat and are left with physical ailments likely to plague them for the rest of their lives. Of course, in Tarrant’s case his injury can be largely hidden and so perhaps put behind him more easily. Neville on the other hand has suffered extreme facial disfigurement than even the well-intentioned and skilled surgeons of the time are unable to correct. He faces a lifetime of surgeries to reach imperfect results and the option of wearing masks as the best means of avoiding notice and eliciting the shock/horror of others. Elinor’s injury is more subtle than those of her friends. The death of Toby leaves her with a deep psychological trauma, not least because she is left with no hope of answers to questions that have haunted her since 1912.
The majority of Barker’s main characters are extremely well drawn and, even when their actions are reprehensible, they are still understandable. The only character who remains somehow unclear is Toby himself, perhaps because he is always viewed and evaluated through the eyes of the others. Toby’s motivation, most obviously in relation to the secret he shares with his sister, is never really established. Maybe Toby doesn’t really understand things himself and so no one else can hope to. However he is to be judged initially, Toby’s eventual outcome is certainly tragic.
As the Regeneration trilogy has shown, Pat Barker is second to none when it comes to describing the truth and horror of the First World War and so the second section of Toby’s Room is particularly effecting. The battle scenes and the searching that Toby and Kit Neville must do for survivors/corpses are harrowing as is the despair that can be seen in all of the soldiers. Also deeply moving is Barker’s portrayal of the after-effects of the war, of the effect that the conflict has both physically and mentally on those involves as well as those left behind. Arguably the strongest message of the book is Barker’s musings on how society and individuals should react to the horrific physical injuries suffered by soldiers and of the lasting traumas that such injuries will cause.
Toby’s Room isn’t always an easy read, there is certainly plenty of darkness and confusion, but it is still an excellent book. Pat Barker is great at capturing how people really feel, both during momentous moments in history and also in the course of day-to-day lives, and so it is easy to become emotionally invested in her characters. The story is exciting in quite an understated way as, while there is of course plenty of action to be found in Kit Neville’s recollections of his time at the Front, most of Toby’s Room is about the impact that life has on the characters. The story of Elinor, Toby, Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville and of the relationships between them all makes compelling reading. Toby’s Room is an excellent novel, better than Life Class, and right up there with the Regeneration trilogy.