29th Aug 2012
Toby’s Room by Pat Barker
As the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War approaches, and with dramas set in the period (such as Downton Abbey) more popular than ever, Pat Barker‘s dark, often disturbingly tragic novel Toby’s Room makes an excellent addition to a growing genre.
Barker is perhaps best known for her multi-award winning Regeneration trilogy, whose third instalment won the Booker in 1995.
The depth of Barker’s research and interest in the war – both its effects on whose who lived through it, and the marked differences between the society of the early 20th century and our own – is evident throughout Regeneration, and this sense of place is once again perfectly captured in Toby’s Room.
As the novel opens in 1912, the happy, middle class world of Toby and his sister (and best friend) Elinor appears to hide little more than the usual childish upsets.
However, the disturbing events of one summer’s day create dark secrets between the siblings that will profoundly affect their lives.
Elinor – a flat, unlikable character – is a student at the Slade School of Art.
As the novel moves from 1912 to the latter years of the war, her mentor, Dr Tonks, is working at the Sidcup hospital where great strides are being made in facial restoration surgery.
The book moves between Elinor’s struggle to accept the death of her brother in the war, and the interconnected struggles of her former lovers, war artists and Dr Tonks’ patients.
While so many different plot lines could be a struggle for some readers to keep up with, the beautiful writing and the insights that Barker offers into soldiers’ lives make this book worth the occasionally plodding plot.
One of the most enjoyable features of Toby’s Room is the subtlety with which Barker explores her themes. As with other of her books, including The Eye In The Door, the reader is left dwelling on the consequences of war on more than just men’s bodies.
Toby’s Room, with its explorations of friendships and fame, raised the question of how our generation might cope with such devastating losses. More than anything else, this book is a depiction of the loneliness of grief.
Despite Toby’s Room’s slow start, somewhat unlikeable heroine and occasionally meandering plot, fans of Pat Barker’s beautiful prose – or anyone wanting to know more about the First World War – will not be disappointed.
Toby’s Room is published tomorrow. Buy it in hardback for £9.85.
Other recommended reading: if you haven’t read the Regeneration trilogy, they are excellent books – especially the second, The Eye In The Door.
Other enjoyable books set in the period and released this year include the gripping Half of the Human Race by Anthony Quinn and Louisa Young’s lovely, sad My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You – like Toby’s Room, also set partly in the Sidcup Hospital.