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Toby's Room Hardcover – October 2, 2012
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Praise for Toby's Room:
"Barker...has pursued [World War I] through a remarkable series of novels: the much-admired "Regeneration" trilogy...Life Class and now Toby's Room.... [T]hese novels go far beyond a demonstration of the powers of the historical imagination. Like most good works of fiction, they’re not so much about the events they depict as about the resonance of those events, the way certain actions ripple through people’s lives.... Toby's Room takes large risks. It’s dark, painful and indelibly grotesque, yet it is also tender. It strains its own narrative control to create in the midst of an ordinary life a kind of deformed reality—precisely to illustrate how everything we call ‘ordinary’ is disfigured by war. And it succeeds brilliantly."— John Vernon, New York Times Book Review
"[T]he writing is lucid and often beautiful."—Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly
"A tantalizing and moving return to wartime London."—Joanna Scutts, Washington Post
"You get a glimpse inside Toby’s room in Pat Barker’s poignant novel of the same name, but what you remember are three real and very different English landmarks — the Slade, London’s prestigious art academy; Cafe Royal, frequented by the likes of Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill and Virginia Woolf; and the Queen’s Hospital, opened in 1917 to serve injured British soldiers in need of facial reconstruction.... No one evokes England in all its stiff-upper-lip gritty wartime privation like Barker. She is as uncompromising as Henry Tonks, as determined to render an honest portrayal of war. She will not allow us to sweep it out of sight.... [She] sets the bar high."—Ellen Kanner, Miami Herald
"Haunting and complicated sibling love is at the heart of Pat Barker's Great War novel.... [T]he precision of Ms. Barker's writing shows her again to be one of the finest chroniclers of both the physical and psychological disfigurements exacted by the First World War."—Wall Street Journal
"Barker deftly fused fact and fiction in her hugely impressive "Regeneration Trilogy" by turning the war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen into integral characters. She continues this blending in Toby's Room.... [It] is in many ways Barker's most ambitious novel to date.... As ever, the war scenes, and the accounts of the broken men who inhabit them, are, by turn, gripping and unsettling. However, in with the carnage and the trauma are those expert passages on art as something both reflective and redemptive. This is a powerful book that chronicles in various ingenious ways, and from certain unique perspectives, 'the poignancy of a young life cut short.'"—Malcolm Forbes, San Francisco Chronicle
"A Pat Barker novel…is a novel that deals in some way with the horrors of World War One, and it’s a also a novel about art, but mostly it’s a novel about how art attempts to depict the horrors of World War One. And this is how a Pat Barker novel attempts to depict the horrors of World War One: bluntly."—Brock Clark, Boston Globe
"[A]lthough Toby’s Room is not billed as a prequel or sequel to Life Class and the reader need not be familiar with that novel in order to get to grips with this... [t]hose who do know Barker’s previous work will be struck by recurrences and continuations in this novel not only of events in Life Class, but in Regeneration, too.... [Barker's] prose remains fresh, humanely business-like, crisp and unsentimental. Images are scrupulously vivid, and the plot has real momentum."—Freya Johnston, Telegraph (London)
"A driving storyline and a clear eye, steadily facing the history of our world.... For Barker, the wounded faces of the soldier-victims are realities, and also emblems of what must never be forgotten or evaded about war, and must continue – in her plain, steady, compelling voice – to be turned into art."—Hermione Lee, Guardian (London)
Praise for Life Class
“Beautiful and evocative . . . A coming-of-age story that transcends the individual and gestures to the fate of a generation.”
“Life Class possesses organic power and narrative sweep . . . Barker conjures up the hellish terrors of war and its fallout with meticulous precision.”
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Here, as in her best fiction, Barker unveils psychologically rich characters . . . and resists the trappings of a neat love story, reminding us once again that in art and life we remain infinitely mysterious.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
Praise for the Regeneration Trilogy
“A masterwork . . . complex and ambitious.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“It has been Pat Barker’s accomplishment to enlarge the scope of the contemporary English novel.”
—The New Yorker
“A literary achievement . . . remarkable.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Some of the most powerful antiwar writing in modern fiction.”
— The Boston Globe
About the Author
Pat Barker is most recently the author of Life Class, as well as the highly acclaimed Regeneration Trilogy: Regeneration; The Eye in the Door, winner of the Guardian Fiction Prize; and The Ghost Road, winner of the Booker Prize; as well as seven other novels. She lives in the north of England.
Life Class is available in Anchor paperback.
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If you want stories about "noble" "good" people you won't find them here - you never do - in her stories live only real people. They are selfish, thoughtless, sometimes they do evil. Barker looks at them and records it all in a heart breaking way. There is no glossing over or redemption here. Sometimes you will see yourself and have to turn away embarrassed, but you will have to "see how it all ends". You will never be bored.
It’s difficult to discuss this book without giving away the ending. It centers around a brother-sister pair who are rather closer than any brother and sister ought to be. The book starts off before the war when Elinor Brooke is an aspiring artist studying at The Slade in London as well as anatomy through dissection as arranged by her aloof but esteemed mentor, Professor Tonks (as is the case with much of Barker’s work, she uses real historical characters but fleshes them out fictionally). In a family that revels in keeping secrets, her older brother Toby is the only person she seems able to connect with, despite – or perhaps even because of – what happened between them during and after a summer ramble in the woods.
The book then fast forwards to 1918. Toby is serving on the front lines as a medical officer while Elinor tries to pretend as if the war has nothing to do with her, being female and all. Until, that is, word comes that Toby is “Missing, believed killed”. After discovering a note in the pocket of Toby’s second uniform which was returned, Elinor decides to exploit her former relationship with Paul Taurant to get to Kit Neville who, according to the note, may know more about Toby’s death. Elinor used to see both Paul and Kit during their days as student artists at the Slade.
The remainder of the book is the cloying, incestous, exploitative peeling away of the end of Toby’s life. The three artists, along with another student, German transplant Catherine, alternatively cling to and repel away from each other seeking (or avoiding) answers. Both Paul and Kit have been badly wounded – Kit’s injury is facial, making him nearly unpresentable in public. The two men have had little love lost for each other, but their war experiences seem to bond them, and neither seems to mind that they’ve bedded the same women.
In the end, the only character I connected with at all was Kit. He is aggravating. A narcissistic bully on one hand, a cowardly whiner on the other. But in the end his wounds make him human and his pathos understandable. I still can’t figure out what to make of the other major characters. Paul seems to be a blank slate – an innocent who loses a bit of his innocence yet gains nothing in the bargain. But what are we to make of Elinor and Toby? There is a sense that we are supposed to like them. They are self-sacrificing in their way, hardened realists, committed. But neither has the slightest compassion for anyone other than each other – and even that is questionable. They both exploit whoever is available to be exploited. Yet the book seems to be suggesting that their exploitations are all forgiven because of their nobility. It’s enough to make you want a bath.
In any case, Ms. Barker failed to give me reason to care enough to really follow the unraveling of the central mystery of the story. I didn’t really much care how or why Toby Brooke died. But even to the extent I did care, I found it just baffling – all that build up for that? It didn’t really make sense. The only thing I can think of is Paul’s passing thought that there must be even more to the story that Kit was holding back. But if so, we readers will never know. All-in-all, the story is just irritating and frustrating, but not in any sort of intriguing or insightful way, but just in a way that suggests the author really didn’t know her characters and wasn’t able to present them as full human beings.
I did enjoy the parts of the book about reconstructive surgery and the realities of the “Great” War – something which Ms. Barker does excel at. But it never really seemed like these elements were fully integrated into the story. Elinor’s venture into painting the patients at Queen’s Hospital never really relates to any other element in the story, except that Kit Neville happens to be there at the time. According to Amazon, two stars means "I didn't like it", and I really didn't like this book, but I gave it an extra star for her mastery of World War I life and medical reconstruction.
"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.
As we pass to 1917, Toby has died and yet his death and it's secrets remain a dark shadow through the life of Eleanor and her friends, one of whom served with him and witnessed his death. Neville has come home crippled and laden with secrets. He confides that Toby was a saint with a cruel hard side. I believe this duality overshadows the story of this very fine novel.