Toby’s Room

51mJgOkPoAL-1._SL300Using World War I as her usual backdrop, Pat Barker’s new book – Toby’s Room – centers the action on the war’s effects, recovery, and her old theme of “regeneration.” The images of wounded soldiers, battlefield scars, and haunting nightmares are stark and difficult, but Barker humanizes the pain with her attention to individual stories and the personal traumas they face – both in and out of the war. Her recurring attention to the unavoidable aftereffects of war will leave you dazed and thoughtful.

Elinor, a talented young artist in training at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, idolizes her big brother, Toby, who is studying to become a doctor. An incident changes their relationship, and remains an undercurrent throughout the book. When Toby is declared “Missing, Believed Killed” in the war and Elinor finds an unfinished note with vague references to his death in Toby’s uniform pocket, she is determined to uncover how he died. Fellow art student, Kit Neville who was serving with Toby as his stretcher bearer, suffers a horrible wound (his nose is blown off) and is sent back to London to recover; Elinor relentlessly pursues Kit, who knows the truth about Toby’s death.

Art plays a strong role in the narrative, with references to real people and sketches that exist today. Henry Tonks, the Slade art professor, divides his time between the Slade School and Queen Mary’s Hospital, where he sketches wounded soldiers as an aid to plastic surgery. Barker supplies a link to a web site where readers can view the historical Tonks portraits.

As each character suffers the war’s ordeals, recovering from both physical and psychological wounds, Barker’s narrative focuses on their thoughts, dreams, and projections similar to how she used them in Regeneration. Siegfried Sassoon, the main character, from that trilogy is mentioned, but only briefly, as another casualty of war who keeps on surviving. Despite the dark and painful topic, Pat Barker manages to highlight the courage, amid the cynical and sometimes humorous asides, of soldiers forced to return to the ordinary world under unordinary circumstances. Although the timeline is the first World War, the message could be easily applied to unsung heroes who walk in our midst today – fractured spirits resulting from war.

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