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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "But there was something: a shadow beneath the water.", October 18, 2012
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This review is from: Toby's Room (Hardcover)
I understand that you cannot judge a book by its cover. On the other hand, Joel Spector's pastel rendering of Toby on the dust jacket of Booker Prize winner Pat Barker's new novel TOBY'S ROOM is precisely the way the writer portrays him, a stroke of genius on the part of the artist, and important since much of the book has to do with artists, both those who draw the war wounded and the character Elinor Brooke who paints portraits of her brother Toby Brooke. This is another of those novels that you cannot say a lot about the plot without spoiling the book for future readers. Is this a characteristic of Booker Prize winners I ask. Julian Barnes (A SENSE OF AN ENDING), Ian McEwan (SWEET TOOTH), and John Banville (ANCIENT LIGHT), three previous winners, are other examples. While the characters certainly are complex and well-developed--- it is intriguing to watch them change as the narrative progresses--this novel is ultimately plot driven, beginning in 1912 and ending in 1917 and is about the effects of the Great War on several characters, both those who stayed at home and those who went to war. Elinor and Toby are members of a British family with secrets. "What a family they were for not speaking. . . Apart from the breakdown of her parents' marriage, she [Elinor] couldn't have said what the secrets were. But there was something: a shadow underneath the water." (p. 6). Soon Elinor has her own deep dark secrets to keep. Ultimately she will discover many more secrets in connection with her beloved brother Toby. We learn from the dust cover blurb that he will not return from World War I-- so I am not revealing the ending of the novel-- but Elinor and the other members of her family of course, as would all families in that predicament, want to know the details of his death. The ending continues to haunt me, however, since I am not convinced that the character Kit Neville is completely truthful in his account of what happened to Toby.

Certainly no Jane Austen, Ms. Barker writes as effectively of the horrors of war and its effect on both men and women as any male writer I can think of. Actually, although this novel is in no way derivative, I was reminded of another great war novel as I read it, Ernest Hemingway's A FAREWELL TO ARMS. Her descriptions of both the battles and the scenes in the hospitals as well as the men who died or were wounded are quite amazing-- the smells, the visual images. One wounded soldier's face is a "red ruin." He is also described as the Elephant Man, a "Minotaur, a feature that was both more and less than a man."

Ms. Barker's themes are universal: both the secrets and conflicts within families, the heroism and courage that many demonstrate in battle, what war does to families, what happens to families when they lose sons [or daughters in these times] to a war. In a particularly poignant scene, the character Paul, whose limp from a wound Ms. Barker paints so vividly that you can actually see him stumbling, meets a local doctor whose "boy had been in France, he said. He's always hoped Ian would take over the practice, but now this. . . Nothing, he said, as they parted at the door, would ever be the same again." There is also the necessity that a lot of people have to believe that they have gotten something good from a war. Sound familiar? Additionally we see discrimination against perfectly innocent people in time of war because of their nationality. Elinor's best friend Catherine, who is living in London, is ostracised because she is German. Finally Ms. Barker writes of love in all its different manifestations.

This writer's language is always appropriate, often blunt and sometimes beautiful: Here is Ms. Barker's description of a river: "The water underneath the nearest arch broke into V-shaped ripples as a boat passed through. "There were flecks of crimson on the surface of the river, where the setting sun had briefly managed to free itself from a bank of cloud, but they were fading even as he [the character Paul] watched." Then she goes about breaking your heart when Paul finds Toby's books and photographs when he, on a visit to the Brooke family home, is preparing for bed in Toby's room. "That little boy was suddenly a powerful presence in the room. . . Paul could almost believe he heard a faint echo of the explosion that had blown this laughing boy into unidentifiable gobs of flesh. The poignancy of a young life cut short. He hadn't known Toby, but at this moment he could have cried for him: the small boy who's located himself so precisely in the world, and now was nowhere."

A first-class novel.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 8, 2013 10:31:41 AM PST
Foster, we are in total agreement on the cover. My parents had a very similar pastel made of me and, although that was forty years later, they both take me back to the first half of the last century. I have read a good many WW1 books now, five of them by Pat Barker, and have reached the point where the fact of the losses is almost something one takes almost for granted, horrible though it is. I tend to look now for what the author does with this, how he or she ties it in with larger themes or smaller, more intimate ones. Part of the fascination of this book, like the earlier REGENERATION, is the detail on the facts of facial reconstructive surgery. Part of it is the study of how the effects of the earlier psychological trauma (you will know what I am talking about) were incubated by the war and, perhaps, eventually resolved by it. Happy New Year! Roger.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 8, 2013 11:20:24 AM PST
Happy New Year to you too. Have you read TO END ALL WARS? It is a fantastic book I think.

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