There have been many fine novels with World War One settings, such as A Farewell to Arms, All Quiet on the Western Front, A Very Long Engagement and Birdsong. While this book isn’t in that class it’s still pretty good.
There was something about that conflict – the trenches, the mud, the horrific casualties caused by class and tradition-bound generals employing nineteenth-century tactics with twentieth-century weapons, that made it a rich field for fiction.
Pat Barker has been there before and knows the territory. Her earlier Regeneration trilogy has been acclaimed and the third volume, Ghost Road, deservedly won the Booker Prize. Those novels focused on the themes of pacifism and shell-shock – the traumatic effects of a barbaric war on civilised men. Toby’s Room is concerned with injuries to the body, art and the war’s effect on relations between men and women. It is not for the squeamish – descriptions of the facial injuries and the methods of treatment are gut-wrenching.
The novel continues the story of three characters met in Life Class. Elinor Brooke is the protagonist. An upper-middle-class art student, she has an intense relationship with her brother Toby, which results in one incestuous event. When Toby is posted ‘missing believed killed’ in France (the formula used when no remains can be found), she becomes determined to find out exactly how he died. This involves her in complex dealings with Paul Tarrant, a former lover, and Kit Neville, both fellow art students and both wounded.
Paul, a mild, pleasant character, has a painful leg wound, but Neville, arrogant, sexually aggressive and socially offensive, has lost his nose to shrapnel and is in a hospital devoted to dealing with facial wounds.
The novel traces the interweaving of their lives and stories. In Elinor, Barker has created a character who is talented and determined to the point of insensitivity. In Neville, she has pulled off one of the hardest tricks in fiction – depicting a character who, while almost detestable, wins the reader’s support.
Several set pieces display Barker’s power as a writer and researcher. Her description of a dimly lit operating theatre behind the lines as possessing ‘a seedy glamour … halfway between a nightclub and an abattoir’ strikes home.
On day release from hospital, Kit Neville borrows a tin mask made in the exact likeness of the dead poet Rupert Brooke, who was known for his beauty. The actual owner of the mask plays a game in trains where he attracts the attention of woman and whips off the mask to count the number of women who scream and faint.
Neville, too, uses the mask to shock but, in a masterly scene when he gets into a taxi, the driver says he once had Brooke in his cab and quotes the famous lines:
If I should die, think only this of me;
That there’s a corner of a foreign field
That is forever England …
Subverting patriotism and sentimentality, Neville says, ‘That’d be the bit my nose is under.’
This is writing of a very high order, where a single line of dialogue does a tremendous amount of work. Other writers, like Sebastian Faulks, have found ways to tap characters’ imaginations and dreams to blend their present realities with their memories of horror. Barker uses Neville’s morphine-induced dreams and traumatised trance-like states to do this superbly.
The injuries are horrible, the weather is unrelentingly bad and there are few tender moments, but Toby’s Room has a grim charm and a haunting presence that lingers.
Pat Barker Toby’s Room, Penguin, 2012, PB, 256pp, $29.99
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