'Toby's Room': Facing the grim realities of World War I

From the book jacket
From the book jacket
Posted: October 21, 2012

By Pat Barker

Doubleday. 320 pp. $25.95

Reviewed by Rhonda Dickey
Pat Barker's new novel starts, more or less, with a dissection class in 1912 London and moves on to the mutilations of World War I. It's grim, but like Barker's other World War I novels, it speaks to something else, too: the violent remaking of society.

Toby's Room runs parallel to Barker's 2008 novel, Life Class, and shares the same characters.

Life Class focused on Paul Tarrant, a young man from the North, and his fellow students at the Slade School of Art in London. When war broke out, Paul and Kit Neville left their art studies behind to help the wounded in France. Both Paul and Neville have a tortured relationship with Elinor Brooke. The men are both more and less than friends with their female Slade classmate, and each other.

Late in Toby's Room, Barker says of Neville: "Even now, after years of admittedly intermittent contact, he'd have hesitated to call Neville a friend; and yet nobody mattered more."

Elinor has her own internal conflicts. A young woman whose family is comfortably placed in society, she wants to be free of the restrictions that come with her social status.

And she rejects the war. Elinor is no conscientious objector. What bothers her is not so much the war's morality as the way it consumes all conversation, all attention - even though her beloved brother, Toby, is a doctor in France treating soldiers. The war is a giant distraction from art for Elinor.

At the heart of Toby's Room is Elinor's search for what has happened to her brother, who is reported "missing, believed killed." Elinor doesn't believe it, not just because there's no body, but also because a note in Toby's returned effects says: "I won't be coming back this time. This isn't a premonition or anything like that." Toby's note adds: "If you ever want to know more, I suggest you ask your friend Kit Neville . . ."

So Elinor presses Paul, who has returned to England with a bad leg injury, to help her unearth the truth. Paul is reluctant because the task involves questioning Neville, who is hospitalized with shrapnel wounds to his face. The sardonic Neville can speak of having left his nose in France as he faces multiple surgeries. A measure of the torment inside Queen's Hospital for facial injuries is something placed outside: special blue benches, with warnings to the public that they could be shocked by the disfigured soldiers who might sit there.

Barker's writing is subtle and nuanced, even as it is unsentimental in showing the physical and emotional effects of the war. Her mixture of sensitivity and bluntness made her Regeneration trilogy of the 1990s a remarkable work.

She shows, for example, how the war has coarsened even decent people. In one telling scene, Paul talks with Catherine Stein, a Slade colleague whose German family has been persecuted despite having lived in Britain for decades. Catherine's father dies after spending a year in a workhouse, interned as an enemy alien: "Paul's sympathy was entirely genuine, and yet part of him almost jeered. An elderly man dying at home in his own bed, surrounded by people who love and care for him. . . . What, exactly, is there to be upset about in that?"

Toby's Room is about facing reality. Paul and Neville have to come to terms with bodies reshaped by war. Elinor has to accept her brother's fate, as well as the overpowering role that the war now plays in her life. These art students have come of age just as landscapes have been pulverized by the war.

The key to Elinor's breakthrough is Dr. Henry Tonks. Tonks was a real person, a surgeon and artist who taught at Slade. In Toby's Room, he is the professor who had Elinor take part in the dissection class to learn anatomy. Later, at Queen's during the war, he draws the patients before, during, and after their surgeries. He persuades Elinor to do the same.

Tonks becomes the quiet moral center of the novel. He has seen the worst that humanity can offer, and his response is to help the victims and document their suffering in a straightforward but dignified way. And to go on with life.

Neville, in the end, reveals a lot about Toby's fate. But it's not clear whether he has told the whole story. As Paul realizes, "There came a time when you simply had to let it go and accept an approximation of the truth."

Barker provides in her Author's Note a link, http://www.gilliesarchives.org.uk/, to information about Queen's and its work during World War I, including Tonks' pastels of its patients. As she noted in Life Class, they are "among the most moving images to have come out of any war."

Rhonda Dickey is a former Inquirer business editor.

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