Pat Barker returns: Our verdict on Toby’s Room…
Revisiting familiar territory makes for yet another engaging read in Barker's new novel on art and the First World War, says Kate Gliven
Wounded First World War soldiers, Beckenham, Kent, c.1916
In 1991, Pat Barker began her excavation of the experiences of British war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen - the basis for her well-loved Regeneration trilogy. Her new book Toby's Room similarly fictionalises a collective of well-known names from the First World War era, this time art students including Dora Carrington, Paul Nash and Christopher R.W. Nevinson, all of whom studied at the Slade School of Art under Henry Tonks. The book hones in on the facial reconstruction surgery at Queen Mary's Hospital that Tonks pioneered alongside surgeon Harold Gillies.
Much echoes with the beginning of Ian McEwan's Atonement in the opening pages, despite the action taking place two decades earlier. Family life for protagonist Elinor Brooke is as stifling as the summer heat. In the claustrophobic dining room, there is ‘no sound except a discreet, well-bred scraping of knives on plates'. We learn of Elinor's strained relationship with her mother and sister before being plunged into the intensity of her bond with brother Toby - one that goes beyond the boundaries of familial affection.
As Hermione Lee notes in her recent review, there are implicit similarities between this novel and Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room (1922), in its character study of a titular figure that remains enigmatic. In the case of Toby, he is reported "Missing, Believed Killed" on the battlefields of France early in Barker's novel and the narrative is propelled, as is Elinor, by the need to obtain a satisfying account of his last days. Enlisting the help of fellow student and old flame Paul Tarrant, she spends 1917 seeking Slade peer and womaniser Kit Neville who served in her brother's regiment.
Alongside this mystery-driven plot, an overarching concern is the place of art in a time of war. In the lives of the art students, their subject takes on various functions. Some are commissioned as official war artists. Elinor cathartically uses her art in the grieving process, and later puts her skill to use in artist impressions of the surgical procedures at Queen Mary's Hospital. Science and art had already collided for Elinor in her pre-war ‘living anatomy' classes. However, her squeamish objections, voiced to Toby, about observing the extent of the dissections - ‘The face is the person' - gathers a new resonance when she finds and visits the war-scarred Kit, who is convalescing as a patient at Queen Mary's.
The scope of Barker's narrative is wide indeed - and well-balanced and assured with it. There is no doubt about her ability to conjure the action of the front line, but Toby's Room also lets us appreciate her deep knowledge of the period, as she subtly incorporates rich intertextual references to contemporary figures and incidents. For example, Elinor's German friend Catherine, experiencing xenophobia in Britain, relates an anecdote about the South African novelist Olive Schreiner, who was asked to leave Durrant's Hotel in London on the mistaken assumption that her surname was German.
Shortly after Elinor encounters Paul for the first time in the novel's pre-war first half, the focus shifts to their wartime experiences in 1917. Diary segments and alternating narrative voices teach us, within a few pages, of the pair's developed, more complicated relationship. The strongest narrative presence is Elinor's and she, although sometimes infuriatingly self-absorbed, is always engaging.
In essence, 2007's Life Class provides the missing jigsaw piece here - Barker's last novel, it centres on the Slade School of Art characters, including Elinor, Paul and Kit, in the years following the hot summer of 1912. And though fans of Barker would certainly readily welcome a third ‘Slade' book, Toby's Room is as pleasing as a resonant, standalone piece as it would be part of any potential trilogy.
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