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.
Toby’s Room, like Barker’s riveting Regeneration trilogy, takes place during World War I and blends fictional characters with historical ones. The titular character is Toby Brooke, an officer and a gilded, upper-class youth. He appears only to vanish, reported missing in action and presumed dead. Though rarely on the page, Toby is a presence throughout the book, especially for his younger sister, Elinor.
Barker fans may remember Elinor Brooke from Life Class, the author’s previous novel. Life Class allowed Barker to explore what art can teach us about war and what war can teach us about ourselves. However, the story, in which Elinor and fellow Slade student Paul Tarrant tilted toward romance as war loomed, felt thin and forced at times. Romance isn’t really the Booker-winning author’s thing. War is.
Elinor, a talented artist with a brittle, enigmatic personality in Life Class, remains so here, but now we understand why. She had worshipped her brother. Elinor becomes obsessed with knowing the truth, even as it threatens her relationship with Paul and threatens her own stability. She is as damaged by the war as Kit Neville.
The Slade’s bad boy genius, Kit serves as a stretcher bearer in the war, only to be sent to the Queen’s Hospital when he’s disfigured by an explosion. He awakens after surgery and discovers “one of those tube things attached to the stump of his nose.”
Henry Tonks, surgeon, artist and the Slade’s preeminent professor, was a force to be reckoned with in Life Class, and is no less so here. In the studio, Tonks, as his students refer to him, is exacting and merciless. At the Queen’s Hospital, he is someone different. He is there not as doctor but as artist, given the formidable duty of drawing injured soldiers. What would seem a brilliant fictional conceit is historical truth. The hospital has an archive of Tonks’ drawings, most labeled, “Portrait of a wounded soldier before treatment.” Grotesque as the war has made them, Barker’s Tonks means to honor the soldiers by depicting them as they are. “It’s not right their suffering should be swept out of sight.”
One of the novel’s indelible moments occurs when Paul takes Kit out in public for the first time since Kit’s injury. They go to Cafe Royal, the place where Kit once presided as Slade’s enfant terrible. Now he is terrible in another way, “a Minotaur, a creature that was both more and less than a man.”
Barker, never the most elegant prose stylist, stumbles with some back story but sets the bar high, borrowing more than a page from Virginia Woolf. Toby’s Room employs an impressionistic, experimental structure and has a title similar to Jacob’s Room, the novel Woolf wrote in memory of her brother Thoby, a World War I casualty.
Everyone in Toby’s Room is in some way a war casualty, from those enduring the war on the home front to those fighting it on the front lines, from Elinor’s psyche to Kit’s face. “It’s not a contest, though, is it? The suffering?” one character asks. “Do you know, sometimes I think it is,” says Paul, who returns from the war on crutches. Once a painter of pastorals, of England’s green and pleasant land, Paul now paints the battlefield. “The wound and the wasteland are the same thing,” he says. “They aren’t metaphors for each other.” Art becomes not a frivolous enterprise but the only way to make sense of the war’s power and destruction.
Our last image of Toby’s room is a place filled with “viscous, golden light.” Toby’s Room itself is a place altogether darker. 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.
Ellen Kanner is a writer in Miami.