An engaging book that is hard to put down, Toby’s Room takes us into familiar Pat Barker territories: the First World War and Art. We may also have already met some of Barker’s characters in her earlier book Life Class. Neither prequel nor sequel, Toby’s Room stands alone and has its own concerns. Once again, Barker merges the fictive with the historical. Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf, and Ottoline Morrell appear in this novel. More important to the novel is Professor Tonks of the Slade and his work at Queen Mary’s Hospital Sidcup. If you can’t get to the Royal College of Surgeons, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, in London to see his original work, you may be interested in following the link http://gilliesarchives.org.uk online. While the majority of the novel is set against the backdrop of war, it is not necessarily a novel about war other than the emotional wars we fight with ourselves and with each other.
Toby’s Room is a novel about secrets, “about the shadow[s] underneath the water” (6). The novel’s central concerns are rooted in the pre-war life of the Brooke family and in the events of one particular summer day in 1912 “that ripped a hole in the middle of . . . [Elinor Brooke’s] life” (10) irrevocably bonding the siblings but also alienating them from each other. In Elinor Brooke, who as a student at the Slade chafes against the expectation that “the real business of a girl’s life was to find a husband” (6), and who by August 1917 thinks her “heyday’s over” (70), Barker creates a very sympathetic main character. Most of the events are focalized by Elinor in a tight, third person narration or presented in Elinor’s own diary entries. However, the reader is allowed, at times, a wider focus than allowed to the diarist. Some chapters are narrated from the point of view of Paul Tarrant, a fellow Slade student, a wounded “‘temporary gentleman,’” (234) and Elinor’s one-time and to-be-again lover. Other events are revealed through the memories of Kit Neville, another former Slade student who was in the same RAMC unit as Toby and who becomes a patient at Queen Mary’s. These other points of view add texture to the narrative and allow the reader to hear how Toby died before Elinor does, and, perhaps, to know ultimately more than Elinor will know. They also allow the reader to see Elinor as others see her without the possible distraction of an omniscient narrator.
Toby’s Room feels psychologically accurate. All the young people are looking to define themselves and their place in the world. Working-class Paul who feels as “if he were impersonating the boy he’d once been,” (102), alienated German Catherine who changes her name from Stein to Ashby (116), and angry, irresponsible Kit Neville, who’s “perpetually spinning the legend of himself” (192): they as much as Elinor are trying to make sense of who and what they are, have been, and will become.
Much can be made of the work’s title and of the way a room becomes a reflection of or a metaphor for a person. Elinor sleeps in Toby’s room. She wears his coat. Because of the past, because of her love, Elinor is shackled to Toby, at times feels a part of him. She paints picture after picture unable to leave “him out of anything” (106). Although, at first, Toby’s death seems catastrophic for the Brookes, in many ways we can see it as ultimately setting the family, and Elinor most of all, free from the charade they had lived pre-war. Toby’s death precipitates the sale of the family home; the sale of the home means that Elinor must move. More important, the details of Toby’s death allow Elinor the release first of anger and then of acceptance: “‘We can’t do this, you’re dead’” (263). Her apparent vision of Toby “his arms outstretched in a parody of crucifixion” (263) is “unlike any other dream that she’d ever had, . . . an event in the real world with the power to effect change” (264). She must leave Toby’s room. The book ends with Elinor’s running downstairs to let Paul in (264), opening the door to something new.
Satisfying as this resolution is for the reader, there is more to Toby’s Room than simply tracing Elinor’s psychological journey. Barker’s prose is clear and concise; her craft, subtle and controlled. Consider how important doubleness, parallels, and reflections are in the work. Toby is a surviving twin, his papyrus twin sister being one of the things not spoken of in the Brooke family. Toby and Elinor are often thought to be twins though they are not, and Paul thinks of Elinor and Catherine, her friend from the Slade, as “impossibly conjoined: Siamese twins” (173). The Brookes share their name with Rupert Brooke, the beautiful poet whose face is used in the mask worn by Kit Neville to the Café Royal.
Situations from part one are echoed in or foreshadow those in part two. For example, Toby’s fever as medical student parallels Kit’s in hospital. One can’t help but feel that even though the falling snow obliterates “the signs of battle on the lawn” (59), that “battle” of birds fighting over a chicken carcass foreshadows greater turmoil to come. In part one, Tonks tells Elinor, “‘Really, Miss Brooke, you flatter me’” (23), and in part two he laughs at Kit saying, “‘Oh, Mr. Neville, you flatter me” (198). Such parallels are evidence of the tightly structured design of the novel. Then consider the recurring motif of broken bone and torn flesh: first in the dead hare, then in the dissecting room where Elinor studies anatomy, and then in the trenches and in the wards of the hospital. But in Queen Mary’s, the broken bones and torn flesh are reconstructed. In Tonks’ and the other illustrators’ drawings, and in the work of the war artists, two of whom Paul and Kit become, art builds its own truth out of the devastation.
And, for me, it is this focus on reconstruction and on the power of art to construct and reconstruct that lies at the core of the novel. Elinor tells Tonks she feels painting should be about . . . celebration,” and he reminds her, “you also have to paint what’s in front of you” (141). What is before the artist may not be beautiful, but it may be true, or perhaps it may become true. Tonks’ pictures help Gillies rebuild faces for his catastrophically wounded patients. Those faces are unlikely to be copies of what they were before. Kit Neville’s picture is probably the closest we get to seeing “the moment of Toby Brooke’s death,” but Paul still thinks “Neville was under no obligation to stick to the facts” (254); some “secrets aren’t meant to be told” (259). But Neville’s story and his picture do allow Paul a narrative to share with Elinor, a narrative that sets her free.
All in all, a highly satisfying novel.