Toby's Room by Pat Barker

    Toby's Room by Pat Barker was the latest book at the Book Club which I go to and it is fair to say that it is my favourite book which we have read this year. It moved between the present of 1917 to earlier years without missing a beat and it turned out to be one of those books which I did not want to put down. I know when I keep snatching another chapter that I am really enjoying a story.  
   Although not a sequel, Toby's Room returns to characters which Pat Barker has written about before, in the 2007 novel, Life Class. Set mainly in the First World War, she has fictionalised artists of the time who were studying at the Slade School of Fine Art under the famous surgeon, draughtsman and painter of figures, Henry Tonks. Their lives have been torn apart by the war and the purpose of art at time of war is explored. In this book, drawing of the human body is not just a depiction of war scenes but used in facial reconstruction at a hospital for injured and disfigured soldiers. Pat Barker writes of these in clear, plain language which underlines the horror of their situation. 

     The events revolve around Elinor Brooke's quest to find the truth about her brother, Toby, who has been reported 'Missing, Believed Killed' on a French battlefield in 1917. Their relationship has been abnormally close in a way they have tried to submerge but sexual nonetheless. Through an ex lover, Paul Tarrant, she tries to get the truth from Kit Neville, the last person to see Toby alive. Kit has been brought home with terrible facial injuries. Elinor's grief throughout is tangible but isolating. She paints landscape after landscape with the sole figure of Toby somewhere on the canvas. She sleeps alone in his room and seems to use people to get to the truth she craves.

    This is a book which deals with ideas around the futility of war without spelling it out. The faces of the wounded soldiers are clear enough. I thought it was marvellous. 

In short: an honest portrayal of human pain


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