Although Toby’s Room is the sequel to Pat Barker’s Life Class, it is self-contained so can be enjoyed in its own right as with Barker’s earlier Regeneration Trilogy. It picks up the lives of Elinor Brooke, Kit Neville and Paul Tarrant, all formerly students together at London’s Slade School of Art, under the tutelage of the demanding surgeon turned artist Henry Tonks. It’s almost a seamless transition except for a few slightly jarring narrative inks Barker obviously felt were necessary for context. Kit and Paul have both been injured during service in the Army. Elinor is struggling to understand her place in the rapidly changing world “at home”. It is not just the direct consequences of the war, the xenophobia, the deaths, the horrific carnage, but also the slowly evolving role of women.
The death of Elinor’s brother Toby, an army captain killed under never fully-explained circumstances, completely fractures the already fragile relationship with her mother and sends Elinor into a downward depressive spiral. Driven by a uniquely intimate experience as teens, she clings to Toby’s presence, sleeping in her brother’s room after the rest of the family has abandoned the house and its memories, literally cloaking herself with his clothing,
Unable to lay Toby’s ghost to rest until she knows the real cause of his death, she turns first to the self-obsessed Kit, who had been serving as a stretcher bearer in the same regiment but who is now struggling with his own torment, then the faithful Paul, wounded by war and still bruised from his emotional feelings for Elinor.
Eventually, she is persuaded by the irascible Tonks, based on the real-life New Zealand born surgeon Sir Harold Gillies, to sketch the hideously disfigured service men at the Queen Mary Hospital in Sidcup, as part of the tortuous process of physically rebuilding them. As she gets to know them, particularly their macabre good humour, she begins to find her place.
The sketches (which are, as Barker points out at the end of the book, available to view on line) remain a lasting testimony to the reality of war which most of society, literally, shied away from. Working on them slowly gives Elinor a deeper understanding of the value of her talent as an artist and a person. When she finally uncovers the truth about Toby, as shocking as it is, the carapace with which she had been protecting herself is no long necessary.
Barker is exploring big themes: class, sexuality, the definition of society. But, she is at her very best as a storyteller, and one with a masterful touch at quietly conveying the appalling. The understated observations about the men’s facial deformities have far more impact than any amount of gory adjectives.
Toby’s Room by Pat Barker is published in paperback by Penguin.