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The secrets of home, exposed in wartime,
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This review is from: Toby's Room (Hardcover)
Pat Barker's new WW1 novel, "Toby's Room", is a book of secrets. Some are so nuanced that you don't realise they are secrets - or even facts - til they're exposed. That's what a good writer - and Pat Barker is a remarkable one - does to advance both the storyline and the characters' lives.
"Toby's Room" begins in 1912 and ends in 1917. The first part - the shorter part - introduces the reader to the Brooke family - parents who are estranged both physically and emotionally. Three children, Rachel is the oldest and is married, and the two younger, Toby and Elinor are, respectively, a medical student and an art student, and live in London. Elinor Brooke was featured in an earlier Barker book - "Life Class" - which I haven't read, along with two other main characters in this book, Kit Neville and Paul Tarrant. The new book appears to be a sequel of sorts, though when I read the description of "Life Class", both seem to present the same WW1 battle scenes. Maybe like Jane Gardam's tandem duo, "Old Filth" and "The Man with the Wooden Hat", the same characters appear in both Barker's books, telling the story from different angles.
Toby Brooke - the medical student in 1912 - is the center of that part of the story. Elinor and Toby were raised almost as twins and stay extremely close as they age. She lives near him in London while a student at the real Slade School of Fine Art, but certain feelings intrude that are destructive to both. By 1917, Toby, Kit, and Paul are off to France to fight. Toby is a front-line doctor and the other two are in auxiliary battle roles.
Toby disappears on the battlefield - literally blown up with no remains - and the Brooke family is devastated. Elinor realises she must know what happened to Toby in the days leading up to his death. Knowing that Kit Neville had served with Toby, she tracks him down in an English hospital for the facially wounded. At the hospital, she meets her old teacher from Slade - Henry Tonks - by then a noted illustrator of the work of Dr Harold Gillies. Gillies, like Tonks, was a real doctor, and is known as the "father of plastic surgery". Elinor Brooke goes to work with Tonks and Gillies as a medical illustrator.
And then secrets start coming out. Secrets long hidden from both within the Brooke family and in their relationships with others outside it. Most are devastating, but learning them can help Elinor and her friends move on with their lives, knowing that what happened on the battlefield have impacted them so profoundly.
Pat Barker is a master writer. Her combining real and fictional characters makes this book even more interesting than it might have been had she simply been writing fiction. In a way, this book can be compared to John Boyle's "The Absolutist" in tone and style.
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Showing 1-10 of 11 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Oct 7, 2012 5:36:20 PM PDT
Pamela A. Poddany says:
This excellent review has gotten me very interested in this book. I am going to put it on my TBR list. And my maiden name was Barker! Very good review, Jill.
In reply to an earlier post on Oct 7, 2012 6:46:01 PM PDT
Thanks, Ms Barker! It also received a nice review in today's New York Times.
In reply to an earlier post on Oct 8, 2012 2:11:18 PM PDT
Pamela A. Poddany says:
Jill, you are so funny!!!!!
Pamela Audeen Barker Poddany
Posted on Oct 9, 2012 6:47:26 PM PDT
I feel I must be in great company here! :--)
Anyway, Jill, I didn't connect as well to LIFE CLASS (but, also, I think it was timing)--but, based on your review, I think I would really like this one. LIFE CLASS was also a very small sized book (dimensions of hard-backed) --it almost seemed like a novella, one that I didn't have enough time to build a relationship with.
Now I am very tempted!
In reply to an earlier post on Oct 9, 2012 6:49:04 PM PDT
Well, I ordered "Life Class" and it should be here on Thursday. Hopefully I can take it with me on my trip to Chicago this weekend. Though, actually, I have plenty to read on my Ipad.
In reply to an earlier post on Oct 9, 2012 6:56:03 PM PDT
Let me know how you like it. And if the flow was similar to this one.
Posted on Jan 8, 2013 8:20:23 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 8, 2013 1:14:58 PM PST
Roger Brunyate says:
Fine review, Jill. I have just added mine. You do not have to have read LIFE CLASS to enjoy this book, as you will have discovered, and indeed I wonder how you will like it now you have ordered it; for me, this was the better focused and more effective book. Your comparison to the two Jane Gardam books is on the money, though.
You mention several secrets that emerge at the end. I found only one: what became of Toby. I think I know what else you are getting at, but this would not have been a secret to those who had read LIFE CLASS, since Toby's way of life (excuse me, I am being oblique) was already known. The surprise here to me was the opening chapter, although when Elinor is trying to sort out her thoughts about it, one of her theories does in fact turn out to be the true one. Roger.
In reply to an earlier post on Jan 8, 2013 11:29:17 AM PST
What a difference reading back list can make!
Posted on Oct 16, 2014 1:46:46 PM PDT
@ Roger Brunyate. I agree this is a good review of a good book. However, I do think it's important to read Life Class first. Toby's Room is, in effect, both a prequel AND a sequel. The action takes place in 1912, and the majority of the book in 1917. By contrast, Life Class - which focuses on the identical characters - takes place in 1914. Toby's room effectively bookends the narrative, so to speak. Both are well written and interesting stories. My only criticism is that while the main question of Toby's room was answered, the fates of the central protagonists, Elinor, Paul and Kit, are all unresolved. I'm hoping this means that there will be a third book in the series (a la the Regeneration trilogy) so we can find out what becomes of the major players.
In reply to an earlier post on Oct 16, 2014 3:37:32 PM PDT
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