Toby’s Room by Pat Barker – review

by Listener Archive / 24 November, 2012
Harold Gillies is just one of the historical figures in Pat Barker’s return to her métier of World War I.
Toby's Room by Pat Barker

Toby’s Room is a sort of sequel to Pat Barker’s previous novel, Life Class. Sort of, because although many characters reappear, this second book opens in 1912, two years earlier than Life Class, and then leapfrogs to 1917. Both books begin in civvy street and move to the front line. And both come alive there after somewhat creaky beginnings. World War I is undoubtedly Barker’s métier. This time a young woman takes centre-stage; much of the narrative consists of her letters and diary entries. Elinor Brooke (the surname surely more than coincidental) is a student at the Slade. In addition, she undertakes drawings in the dissecting room of a London medical school, under the tutelage of Professor Henry Tonks, the real-life surgeon turned artist and teacher.

His contribution to the war effort is to produce portraits of injured soldiers undergoing plastic surgery. As usual, Barker mixes historical figures with fictional. Our very own Harold Gillies appears: “Odd chap, looks a bit like a bloodhound. New Zealander. He calls the patients ‘honey’ and ‘my dear’ and sits on the beds.” He is also the best otolaryngologist (head and neck surgeon) in the world.

Elinor visits Queen Mary Hospital at Sidcup to see his pioneering work, creating hoses of transplanted flesh from which to fashion noses on blown-away faces, for instance. Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man – Tonks knew him – has a cameo role. Elinor also visits Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa at Charleston. At dinner, the talk is of war and of the prospects for the conscientious objectors working on their land. The episode, admittedly a diary entry, is rather stilted, as if included to make a point. Nevertheless, Barker’s echo of Woolf’s title suggests a kind of homage. Jacob’s Room is an elegy for Woolf’s adored older brother Thoby. Toby’s Room is also an elegy: Elinor loses her beloved older brother Toby – rather too beloved, given their sexual relationship (revealed very early on).

It’s Elinor’s quest that fuels the novel. “Missing Believed Killed”, says the telegram, but what does that mean? She is desperate to know more and we, the readers, come to share her need for the truth. Along the way, Barker addresses questions about war, its disciplines, its casualties. She considers the responsibility of artists in wartime. But what she does best, as always, is recreate in visceral detail the horror of the trenches and the equal horror of the wounded survivors. With a bit of luck, she may be working on a third volume to make this a trilogy.

TOBY’S ROOM, by Pat Barker (Hamish Hamilton, $37).

Marion McLeod is a Wellington reviewer.
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