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Life Class #2

Toby's Room

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Pat Barker confirms her place in the pantheon of Britain's finest novelists with a masterful novel that portrays the staggering human cost of the Great War. Admirers of the Regeneration trilogy and fans of Downton Abbey alike will be enthralled.The incomparable Booker Prize winner once again demonstrates her ability to eloquently convey simple, moving truths. The enormity of the war's impact€”not only on soldiers at the front but on the loved ones they leave behind€”is poignantly expressed in her unflinching and elegant prose.

320 pages, Hardback

First published January 1, 2012

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About the author

Pat Barker

37 books2,113 followers
Pat Barker, CBE, FRSL was born in Thornaby-on-Tees in 1943. She was educated at the London School of Economics and has been a teacher of history and politics.

Her books include the highly acclaimed Regeneration trilogy Regeneration; The Eye in the Door, winner of the Guardian Fiction Prize; and The Ghost Road, winner of the Booker Prize; as well as seven other novels. She's married and lives in Durham, England.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 596 reviews
Profile Image for Paul.
1,218 reviews1,962 followers
November 4, 2017
Somehow I have managed to read the second volume of this trilogy first. Life Class is the first and I will read that next. It is a stand-alone novel though. There is an awful lot going on here. The obvious link is Virginia Woolf’s war novel Jacob’s Room, and, of course, Toby was the name of Woolf’s brother and a brother sister relationship is an integral part of this novel.
Barker has taken a group of artists studying at The Slade to examine what the role of the artist is during wartime. The first novel in the trilogy is set in 1914; this one alternates between 1912 and 1917. The fictional characters are based on a real group of artists at The Slade at the time (Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington, Barbara Hiles, Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer and Christopher Nevinson). Elinor Brooke is Carrington, Kit Neville is a mix of Nevinson and Gertler, Paul Tarrant is a mix of Nash and Spencer. Their teacher Henry Tonks is one of the real life characters in the book Woolf and Ottoline Morrell also turn up). Elinor’s brother Toby is clearly based on Edward Brittain (Vera Brittain’s brother) and based on information that was not known when Vera Brittain wrote Testament of Youth. This is another of the themes, how soldiers who were gay were treated. Anyone who was reported for homosexual activity would be court martialled and could face ten years in prison. This is what happened to Brittain and a “sympathetic” commanding officer basically said “Lead the assault, don’t come back” and he didn’t.
Another theme focuses on how a woman artist should react to the war and we follow Elinor as she makes decisions about what to do. The central mystery of the book is how Toby Brooke dies, he is missing believed killed and Elinor expends a good deal of energy finding out what happens. One of the most powerful parts of the book focuses on men who has serious facial disfigurements and looks at how society reacts to them and what is to be done with them. The Queen Mary hospital in Sidcup is the hospital for those with severe facial injuries. Tonks and the surgeon Gillies are based there. Tonks painted and drew the men who were disfigured and Gilles operated on them, pioneering reconstructive surgery. The drawings that Tonks produced can now be seen online.
The relationship between Elinor and Toby is complex and for a time sexual and her search for the manner of his death is as much a search for an ending and resolution. Barker’s prose is as stark as ever, “Black leafless trees … stencilled onto a white sky” and blue lamps giving faces “a cyanosed look … the first darkening of the skin after death”. There is no flowery wordplay and the novel is direct and powerful. Barker is, as ever, looking at the human response to traumatic events.
There are lots of Woolf allusions scattered around (moths being one of them), but this isn’t an homage to Bloomsbury, it is very much a critique. The portrait of Bloomsbury in the book is as much negative as positive, especially about modernism.
This is another readable and powerful novel by Barker and I’m off to read the first novel in the trilogy.
Profile Image for Jane.
820 reviews627 followers
September 8, 2012
Looking back, I realise that Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy was responsible for a shift in the direction of reading. Those books made me realise that war books weren’t just about men and fighting. And that I could learn a great deal about the world and humanity through books that considered war and its consequences.

Since then I’ve read and learned a great deal. But I haven’t read any of Pat Barker’s work, because nothing has called me in quite the same way as that trilogy. Until now …

Toby’s Room is set in the same period, and when I first read about it I saw that it would be a very different novel, but that there would be similarities in the themes and in the structure. A companion piece, perhaps.

It began in the summer of 1912 when Elinor Brooke, a student at the Slade School of Art, travelled from London, back to her childhood home. It was not a happy home. Elinor’s parents lived largely separate lives; she staying in the country for his health while his life revolved around his club. Her elder sister, Rachel, was distant and critical of the choices she had made. But Elinor was close to her brother, Toby. Maybe too close. Something happened between them that summer that changed their relationship, and shook Elinor.

Back in London she is unsettled; she doesn’t know how to act, and she begins to question what she is doing, what she should do, with her life.

And then the story moves forward, to 1917. Paul Tennant, Elinor’s former lover, is being brought back to England. He is badly wounded, strapped to a stretcher, but he is alive. And Toby is dead.

Grief hits Elinor when the brown paper parcel contains his possessions is delivered.

And then she begins to ask questions. Why did the War Office say that he was missing presumed dead? Why was there an unfinished letter among his possessions. And why did his old friend, Kit, who had been with him not write? She must have answers.

Kit had been gravely injured, his face destroyed, not long after Toby’s death, and he was being treated by pioneering plastic surgeon Harold Gillies at St Mary’s Hospital. Elinor enlists Paul to help her approach him. And she meets her old tutor, Henry Tonks, who is painting the hospitalised men, recording their treatment and it’s progress.

Elinor finds her purpose working with Tonks. And in time, as Paul forms a tentative friendship with Kit, he finds the answers to her questions.

The answers weren’t surprising. I’d realised what they would be very early on.

Pat Barker writes well, without fuss and with clarity, always with the story to the fore. But she held me at a distance. At first I found it difficult to care about these people and their lives. Then though something changed. As the story progressed I was drawn in, by the devastating portrayals of Elinor’s overwhelming grief and Kit’s unspeakable situation.

And I was fascinated by the two characters drawn from life – Harold Gillies and Henry Tonks – and I had to learn more about them.

The inclusion of other real life characters, members of the Bloomsbury group, who crossed paths with Elinor, worked less well. It was a distraction, and it felt like name-dropping.

There were more interesting, more important more relevant themes to consider. The relation of art and war. The roles of women in war. The emotions, the realities, that was draws out. The difficulty in living with the consequences of war.

They were compelling, and though Toby’s Room didn’t strike me as powerfully as Pat Barker’s earlier work, I suspect that is in part she set me on a path and I have read so many books set in and around those war years since then.

Age and experience alters perceptions …

It is also because this is a very different story, and because many of its principal characters do not naturally call on feelings of understanding or compassion.

I still consider this a companion piece, but it is also a book that stands up in its own right and has much to offer any reader with an interest in its themes.
Profile Image for May.
Author 11 books8,595 followers
February 6, 2017
Una novela que me ha gustado muchísimo. Barker es una autora que bebe de la crítica postestructuralista, posmodernista, feminista, de raza y etnicidad y de los estudios culturales. Sin duda una buena manera de iniciarse en la crítica literaria es analizar Toby's Room.
Personalmente, además, he disfrutado muchísimo de la novela.
Profile Image for Laura.
100 reviews102 followers
June 13, 2015
This is a book for a stark, rainy day and a cup of steaming hot tea. The whole book is somber and bleak, as of course it should be considering the topic. Toby's Room is Pat Barker's second book (it could easily be read alone, but I recommend reading Life Class first) about three young British art students whose lives are ravaged by World War I. This novel takes place after the two men are back in London, dealing with injuries of both the physical and psychological nature, struggling to find a hand-hold in the world they're left with. The biggest focus is on headstrong, introverted Elinor, who I liked much better in this book than the first. Her character is multi-faceted and complex, as is her brother Toby, even though he really only appears in flashbacks and recollections of other characters. Elinor is at times withdrawn and deeply reticent, and other times moves through life like a woman possessed. Possessed both by her terrier-like determination to unravel the whole horrible truth of her brother's death, and by the raw, gaping wound she carries as a result of that loss. Their relationship is incredibly complex, and Pat Barker is always willing to take her characters down some very dark paths.

I hope that Barker continues to write books about World War I era England, because she brilliantly captures not only the horror but the myriad of fractures, unraveled threads, and ripple-effects that exist throughout the whole lives of a generation shaped by such a war. It touches everything and everyone, and her characters are all so nuanced, all so genuinely human. I still maintain that the three books of her Regeneration Trilogy are some of the best ever written about the era, and about war in general. While Toby's Room is not quite to that level, it has its own power and left an ache in my heart.
Profile Image for Bill.
308 reviews312 followers
January 11, 2016
This is another typical Pat Barker book. By that I mean it's a really excellent read. Like The Regeneration trilogy, this book is set in the years during and just after, the First World War, and the awful consequences thereof.

I have to say that the part of the book that is set in a military hospital dealing with soldiers with facial injuries was pretty hard to take. Some of the descriptions of these injuries were really horrific.

This is a book mainly about a brother and sister, with other memorable characters as well, of course. It is also a book about secrets, two really big ones in particular. One of these is revealed very early on in the book, while the other doesn't get revealed until the very end. So you have to wait for it, but let me tell you, it was a very pleasurable experience getting there.

Also, I only consider a book to be historical fiction if there are characters from real life in the book. There are at least two of those in this book, which is why it qualifies as far as I'm concerned. This is only my system of course.
Profile Image for Julie.
Author 6 books1,863 followers
December 30, 2012
The bitter irony of war is that it defines life at the same time as it destroys. For those in uniform, following orders is the one raison d’etre when all reason has been lost in the bloodied muck of the battlefield. For those left behind, doing for the war effort becomes the channel through which fear and pride flow into the morass of uncertainty.

How does war change us? Does it redefine character? Does it halt the trajectory of our lives and set us on a different path? Does it show in stark relief who we really are, stripped bare of our defenses and pretenses?

And who are we if we have been stripped of that most central piece of our identity: our literal - flesh and bone - face?

With Toby’s Room, her follow-up to 2007’s Life Class, Pat Barker returns to England in the years just prior to World War I. The first part of Toby’s Room - set in 1912 at the country home of Toby’s and his sister Elinor’s upper-middle class family - serves as a prequel to Life Class. Its second half - set in 1917 – tells us what became of the characters and their relationships that were the central focus of Life Class. Toby’s Room can be read independently of its precursor, but it is a strong testament to the writer’s skill how seamlessly she weaves together these two books so that they seem not like prequel or sequel, but parts of a greater whole.

Barker explores many of the same themes in Toby’s Room – the intersection of art and war, the brutality of the WWI battlefields and trenches, the emotional defenses people create to survive the worst of times. But Toby’s Room is darker, richer and crueler than Life Class. It shows us that not even the greatest heroism and courage can change the face of shame.

There is an element of mystery in Toby’s Room, as Elinor obsesses over the “Missing, Believed Killed” telegram her family receives in 1917. Her search for the truth of her brother’s disappearance in France defines the narrative’s plot. Elinor manages this intrigue while turning her back on any involvement in the war, willfully denying the effect it has had on her life, her love affairs and her family. She tries to lose herself in her art, but eventually it is her art that draws her directly into the war effort.

Pat Barker brings to life the fascinating intersection of war, art and science during World War I, intermingling historical characters and institutions with her fictional narrative to show how artists aided in surgical reconstruction of soldiers’ faces disfigured by bullets, bombs and shrapnel. I spent some time looking through the Tonks’ portraits at The Gillies Archives - the creation and use of which is also a central theme of Toby’s Room. The portraits of faces destroyed by war and reconstructed with the medical technology available at the time are devastating. Barker gives these forgotten men voices, faces and souls.

Her writing style is restrained, distant, almost cold at times. The tone fits the characters and their social class and mirrors the walls they have erected around their hearts. And it makes the brutality of the story all the more shocking.
Profile Image for Giedre.
57 reviews49 followers
May 21, 2016
“Toby’s Room” is probably the seventh book by Pat Barker I have read. I must admit that I was so impressed and affected by her “Regenaration" trilogy when I had read it a couple of years ago, that Barker became one of my favourite writers, and I have been coming back for more of her writing ever since. “Toby’s Room” is a sequel to “Life Class”, although it can be read as a separate book as well. And, together with “Life Class” it’s another disturbing and vivid account of life before, during and after the WWI.

I liked “Toby’s Room” more than “Life Class”, even if it could not touch me in the same way as the “Regeneration” trilogy. The two books in the series follow the lives of a few art students in The Slade, a renowned art school in London, and their inevitable transformation by war. Barker masterly analyzes the place of art in war: does it make sense to keep making art? Can you still be impartial? If you keep making art during the war, does it convert you into a conchie? Can art become part of a war machine? All these questions torment the characters while sooner or later they all get drawn in by the devastating and omnivorous beast of war.

One of the aspects of Barker’s historical novels that I really love and admire is her capacity to mix real historical characters with invented ones so naturally. I always end up guessing which of them really existed, looking them up, reading their biographies, and learning a lot of historical details which are not directly presented in the book. It awakens my curiosity for history, and I finish her books, hopefully, a little less ignorant than I was before opening them.

In “Toby’s Room” we meet at least a couple of these characters. One of them is Henry Tonks, a surgeon and a strict and formidable art teacher at The Slade, who introduces anatomy classes to art students, so that they can get to know a human body in all its aspects. Elinor, an art student and one of the main characters of the book, attends anatomy class together with medical students, and studies it by slowly dissecting a body of an unknown man during a period of a few months, until there is nothing left of it but bones. After the war Tonks works as an illustrator in Queens Hospital, where facial injuries are treated, in order to depict the faces of the soldiers before and after the surgeries. Here he works with Harold Gillies, a surgeon and another historical character, who is now considered the father of plastic surgery. Barker’s vivid description of the atmosphere in the hospital, together with Tonks’ paintings and Gillies’ plastic surgery methods, illustrations of which you can easily find online, is powerful and disturbing. Both through the scenes of the dissected man in the anatomy class, and through the injuries of the patients in Queen’s Hospital, which involve the protagonists as well, Barker studies the relation between face and identity.

I could not truly connect to the characters of the book and found them a little distant, especially in comparison to other books of Barker, and that must be the reason of why they are mostly absent in my review. However, my four stars go to the incredibly complicated topics analyzed by the author, to introducing me once again to the horrors of war, seen from different angles which I had been incapable of imagining before opening this book, to disturbing me once again, and to never failing to shake me out of my comfortable numbness.
Profile Image for Dead John Williams.
571 reviews15 followers
July 30, 2016
Not having read anything previously by this author I came to it fresh, as it were, with no pre-conceptions or expectations. I was very disappointed, the characters for the most part were bland and very poorly fleshed out. The one character that wasn't bland was inexplicably loud without any real explanation as to why.

The "shocking" scene very early on in the book was not picked up later on and I could not understand why it was included in the first place as it had no relevance to the story or the characters as they unfolded. What on earth was the author thinking by including such a scene without any follow-up in any way shape or form.

To be honest, I found the whole thing pretty much irrelevant. The fact that it was set in the First World War sent to be a contrivance rather than an intent. It added nothing apart from background. If you haven't read it, don't bother.

Profile Image for Amanda.
601 reviews51 followers
January 7, 2013
I have huge respect for Pat Barker and devoured her "Regeneration" trilogy, but have been a little disappointed in subsequent offerings. I'm afraid "Toby's Room" hasn't changed that at all.
Still writing about the tragedy of WW1, I feel this novel and it's somewhat surprising opening events doesn't really add to Barker's canon on the subject.
The characters, with the possible exception of Neville, are insubstantial and, while Neville is fleshed out a little more thoroughly than the rest, even the origins of his abrasive personality are never clearly examined. Elinor is largely unlikeable, but not to any extent that actually inspires a distinct dislike, Paul is mostly a vessel to carry the story along and Toby is completely shadowy - perhaps deliberately so.
Through a couple of references to Elinor's social life we are given a very brief glimpse into the Bloomsbury circles active in that period, but again it is insubstantial, offering nothing of value to the story and comes across - ever so slightly - as name dropping.
The work of Sir Harold Gillies was game-changing and I think that an opportunity to examine the treatment and both short and long-term impact of the horrific facial injuries suffered by WW1 veterans was disappointingly lost here.
Profile Image for Rick.
730 reviews13 followers
March 6, 2013
Toby's Room is the latest excellent novel by Pat Barker. I have read most of Pat Barker's novels and they never fail to satisfy. Barker creates interesting characters and her best works (the Regeneration Trilogy)occur during the First World War. In these books and in Toby's Room her fictional characters interact with actual historical figures in coming to grips with the horrors of modern warfare. Barker writes less about battles and combat and more about the impact of those conflicts on combatants and their families and lovers living in Great Britain at the same time.
Barker also depicts how the war occurred during a time of major societal change as the class and social mores of Victorian England were shaken to their foundations.

Toby's Room is in some ways a sequel to Life Class featuring many of the same characters. However i believe the books need not be read in tandem. Toby's Room stands on its own.

The principle characters in Toby's Room are Toby Brook a military doctor, his Sister Eleanor an artist and Kit Neville and Paul Tarrant, wounded World War I veterans and artists like Eleanor. Toby is an enigma, although his presence and absence drives the plot.

The most in teresting element of the novel to me was not the sexual tensions and behavior of various characters-albeit that was intriguging but the descriptions of medical treatment for soldiers horribly scarred by the war. Kit Neville is one such victim and the nightmare of being grotesquely wounded and coping with the stigma of such an injury was moving and fascinating.

Pat Barker is an excellent novelist. Anyone who enjoys serious literature should try her books. Toby's Room is a great place to start.
Profile Image for Diana.
218 reviews2 followers
August 16, 2015
Pat Barker tackles another World War I tale with Toby's Room. The story revolves around Elinor's quest to find out how her brother Toby died in the war. I adored the Regeneration Trilogy and perhaps that's why I was so disappointed in this book.

There were a few major problems that I had with Toby's Room. First, the character of Elinor never grabbed my interest. She seemed aloof and although it was clear she loved her brother I never quite felt it. Toby also was a complete mystery to me. The other characters, Kit and Paul, were much stronger, but this didn't save the book since the story focused on Elinor and her brother. I was also annoyed by the incest theme. I didn't quite understand why it was included in the story. Barker throws the incest into the book so early that we don't understand the motivation behind it. In fact I never understood what drove Toby and Elinor together. Were we to think that Toby's advances towards his sister were an attempt to fight his gay tendencies or was the incident something that drove him towards men? I just didn't get it. I feel the book would have been better if she had cut the incest thread altogether and instead fleshed out the relationship between Elinor and Toby.

Despite its problems, the book was quite riveting when it got rolling and that's why it gets three stars instead of two. Barker once again injects realism into her novel by having the war artist Henry Tonks as Elinor's art teacher. I'm not sure this worked quite as well as it did in the Regeneration Trilogy, but it was still an interesting inclusion.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
2 reviews1 follower
December 30, 2012
Perhaps I need to let this book simmer in my mind longer, in order to truly appreciate it. I finished "Toby's Room" in a day, spurred on by the intense and unexpected events occurring in the very first pages of the novel. I was shocked at the matter-of-fact descriptions of the defining event that ripples through the rest of the story. I was fascinated with the characters in the beginning, for their actions and reactions were so different than anything I had expected. I was taken in by the main character, Elinor. While I could not identify personally with the horrendous things she had endured, the writing was simple and honest, and I felt empathy and certainly sympathy for the character. These feelings, however, did not remain to the final pages of the story. Unfortunately, the end left me feeling dissatisfied. The interest I'd had in Elinor at the beginning faded as the story progressed until I found I cared very little for the character's ultimate fate.

I came away feeling confused at Elinor's lack of explanation and reaction to the disasterous encounter at the start of the story. I kept hoping for some resolution, or even explaination for how she survived it. Perhaps I'll come to appreciate the story as I think more about it, but at this point confusion is the only thing I took out of this particular story.
Profile Image for Caroline.
Author 14 books36 followers
April 28, 2014
This book has had mixed reviews, particularly from people who loved Barker’s regeneration trilogy. I read Toby’s room back to back with Life Class and really enjoyed it.

Barker does make all her characters, whether completely fictional or based on people in real life utterly convincing. She also pulled off the trick of engaging the reader’s sympathies with the unlikeable characters like Kit Neville who becomes increasingly unpleasant the more you discover about him. But he is also a man to be pitied for his terrible facial injuries so you are torn between empathy and dislike.
The other aspect of the novel that felt true to the times in which it is set was how her characters struggle to re-connect with the ordinary lives back in England after having been out on the Western front. One of them goes out for a walk through the English countryside but all he can see is battlefields. This sense of dislocation and alienation besets her female characters who are damaged by the impact of the war.

I couldn’t put it down and also didn’t want to finish reading it.
Profile Image for Ian.
528 reviews72 followers
January 23, 2013
A quite compelling read that I struggled to put down. It combines dark,family secrets with the horrors of the First World War and the intimacy of love and loss. Elinor, a budding artist is extremely close to her older brother Toby, and when the family recieves news that Toby is "Missing, Believed Killed", Elinor's safe world of just ignoring the war is shattered. She becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to Toby, and seeks the help of various old friends including Kit Neville, a fellow artist who was with her brother at the end. Kit has subsequently been hideously wounded and is at a specialist hospital for facial reconstruction in Kent but for some unknown reason is refusing to help. Elinor thus starts work as a surgical artist to get closer to Kit and to try to persuade him to divulge the information she so craves. This novel is beautifully written and is a memorable addition to Pat Barkers previous work.
Profile Image for Cynthia Dunn.
169 reviews119 followers
December 23, 2012
Pat Barker's new book, "Toby's Room" is considered to be a sequel to "Life Class." Yet, although I didn't care for "Life Class," I found this to be much better and could be read without having read the first book. Not as good as her "Regeneration Trilogy," it also takes place during WWI with a bit of incest, homosexuality, painting, disfigurement and secrets added to the mix. None of the characters are very likeable though I enjoyed reading about Henry Tonks, the real life surgeon who became a famous painter and teacher.

I wonder if this is Barker's last book about the War. I hope not.
Profile Image for Annette.
236 reviews27 followers
October 3, 2017
I actually enjoyed this more than Life Class though that was beautifully written and gripping too, because the character of Elinor is so well drawn. She is complex and fascinating. I felt huge sympathy for her in her confusion. The final chapters with Paul and Kit were also extraordinary. An engaging love story. The characters felt real.

Barker is such a good writer, very economical but direct. Highly recommend.
Profile Image for Lindsay.
757 reviews214 followers
July 23, 2013
'Painting numbed the pain; nothing else did.'

It is 1912, and Elinor Brooke is studying art at the Slade School of Art in London under the tutorage of Henry Tonks. There she befriends fellow art student Kit Neville, rather a difficult person, and somewhat of a ladies' man. Elinor's mother and sister are against her independence and her pursuing her studies. Toby, Elinor's brother and her closest friend, is supportive of her endeavours.

Then the story moves forward to 1917, with Britain at war, and the men away on the battlefields in France. Toby uses his medical experience to help the wounded there. News comes through to the Brooke family that Toby is missing.

Elinor is anxious to seek out the truth about her brother Toby’s death during the war; 'She knew so little. What did 'Missing, Believed Killed' actually mean?' Despite writing several times to Kit in the hope of discovering more information as to how exactly Toby died, she receives no reply.

Kit Neville then returns from France. Through him the author conveys how the confusing memories and images of war can haunt the mind: 'All sorts of shadowy figures crossed the suburbs of Neville's mind, or crept out of the darkness and pressed in on him.'

Neville's face has been destroyed in the war, and Pat Barker writes with frank realism about the disfigured appearances of the men being treated for facial injuries sustained in battle. She describes what is necessary for us to comprehend the suffering of these men, and the work and techniques of Harold Gillies, the pioneering plastic surgeon at Queen Mary's Hospital in Sidcup, and she depicts the difficulty and pain endured by Neville trying to somehow come to terms with himself as he is now.

Kit is still reluctant to reveal anything more to Elinor about Toby's death, so Elinor turns to her former love Paul Tarrant, another art student, and asks for his help speaking to Kit. She seeks some form of closure regarding Toby, some way to even begin to move on from his death, having been such a key part of her life, and sharing a dark secret.

The author illustrates how art becomes linked with the surgery being undertaken to reconstruct the damaged faces of the soldiers. A record is being created of those wounded, with Elinor becoming involved in these portraits. I felt moved by the immense courage of the soldiers, and feel that the author writes both authoritatively and compassionately about the mental and physical scars of war.

The inclusion of real people from this period in history, Henry Tonks and Harold Gillies, adds weight to the authenticity of the story's backdrop, and caused me to read more about them and their work after finishing the novel.

I was struck at times by the beauty and aptness of the prose; the following passage in particular stood out for me, when relating how Paul views the countryside and weather back home, his impressions all bear the stamp of the war:

'Everything he saw, everything he felt, seemed to be filtered through his memories of the front line, as if a think wash had been laid over his perceptions of this scene. Columns of sleety rain marched across the fields while, in the distance, grey clouds massed for another attack.'

I felt for Paul as he seeks to find a place for himself in Elinor's heart, wondering if this is a lost cause.

A fascinating, intelligent and beautifully written historical portrait of people and relationships, war and destruction, love and loss, under the shadow and impact of the First World War.

In Toby's Room, the author revisits characters that featured in her earlier novel Life Class, though I would add that a reading of that is not necessary to understand and enjoy this novel.
Profile Image for Robert.
Author 14 books102 followers
March 25, 2013
British novelist, Pat Barker is best known for the Regeneration Triology, focused on World War I. Toby's Room covers some of the same territory...the years leading up to the war when it was all but unimaginable...and the years of the war when it also was all but unimaginable. Toby's Room is a superb novel offering a full account of what it was like to be a young person in England during those times. Barker's focus is on Elinor and Toby, younger sister and older brother, in a milieu of other well-educated, troubled young Brits hoping to find their way ahead in the professions or possibly the arts but somehow landing in the trenches of Ypres. Elinor, the painter, and Toby, the medical student, more or less open the novel committing an act of unanticipated incest and then struggling to "put things back the way they were before." There's something about Toby, whose gesture of a certain kind of kiss opened the door to more, that won't be put right, however. He's elusive, suddenly less of Elinor's soulmate and more a figure of an older generation

So Elinor pursues other interests--not just love interests, aesthetic interests, sense of self interests--and settles among colleagues at an art school where she prospers, but remember: in the early part of the twentieth century, young women were not expected to go far. Barker has a wonderful sense of pace as she unfolds this tale and brings on the war. She also develops a series of characters who are attractive for all the wrong reasons--too loud, too quiet, too German, too censorious... Lots of arrangements and relationships are explored that don't pan out, nor should they. There's no settling for less than what is truly compelling among these young people. When they don't fit together, they drift apart but remain courteous, even friendly. The point of view shifts: Sometimes Elinor's point of view, sometimes her diary, sometimes the point of view of a young man named Paul Tarrant. These shifts are handled effortlessy. Barker writes splendidly about both the English countryside and London. She's just as good along stretches of slate-strewn stormy coast.

When the war hits, the men are fed into it. Those who return often are maimed. A young man named Kit Neville has his nose blown away. Paul Tarrant has a permanently bad, painful leg. Toby doesn't return. Elinor wants to know why not. She thinks Neville knows the story but can't get it out of him. For the longest time, neither can Paul. I won't reveal the ending. I'd rather return to the middle to late sections where Elinor and others are working at a hospital for veterans with facial wounds. Neville is one of them. The horrors of facial disfiguration are graphically presented. It's hard to read about these things--rebuilding a nose, reconstructing a jaw, mending a shattered cranium. Men went to war; monsters returned...but again, not Toby. Despite the disturbing material that lies at the core of Toby's Room, it's a novel almost anyone interested in realistic fiction, or fiction dealing with WWI, would enjoy. The writing and characters are consistently satisfying, the complex moral dilemmas the novel explores are taken head on. This is a very good novel. For more of my comments on contemporary fiction, see Tuppence Reviews (Kindle).
Profile Image for Susan.
518 reviews36 followers
September 8, 2020

The volumes in Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy are among my favourite books, and I'm certainly not disappointed with this one, as I think it's equally good.
In the Regeneration Trilogy she explores the devastating and far reaching psychological effects serving in the trenches during WW1 has on soldiers and officers alike. In Toby's Room she revisits that era and weaves a brilliant story around the pioneering work of surgeons trying to help men who have returned from war with devastating facial injuries.
Once again she mixes her excellent fictional characters, in this case, a Brother and Sister whose relationship is far from conventional, and the people who are part of their lives, with real people from the time.
This combination gives a moving and believable account of a terrible war and it's effects on those caught up in it....highly recommended.
Profile Image for Michael Sanderson-green.
698 reviews3 followers
September 16, 2012
All the topics touched on in the regeneration trilogy and more in a third the time , without losing any power, I guess a reflection of maturity as writer. The book covers wwwi, incest, homosexuality, death, lies perception, trauma , women's role in the 1910s and more . Chapter 11 is one of the best single chapter I've read in any book it just took the previous chapters build up and with great clarity and poetry made sense of it all and set the book spinning in its intended direction.
Profile Image for Jon.
1,325 reviews
January 30, 2019
The second volume in Barker's second trilogy about the effects of WW I on three young people. Actually it's much more than that, since these characters seem to generalize the effects of any war on anybody. The main question here (among many others) is what has really happened to the older brother of the young heroine--he is reported missing and presumed dead in a battle near Ypres. How long can you maintain hope that he is still alive? And if he isn't, exactly what happened? I have some personal experience of this, since my uncle died in Italy in WW II, and I've read the fruitless letters my father wrote to the army trying to find out what happened. Pretty much anybody who might have had some personal knowledge was also dead. The truth here, as it finally becomes known towards the end of the book is quite shocking in a number of ways.
Profile Image for Sheri.
1,233 reviews
April 22, 2014
I liked it. I would argue that it is not really a "war" book. Nor, is it really all that much about the new (for the time) science of facial reconstruction. This is a book about burgeoning sexuality and relationships between people (then again, isn't everything ultimately about relationships between people?).

Barker sets the hook early with the scene between Elinor and Toby and then gently reveals the effects of that night over the rest of their lives. She never quite comes back to it (if only I could be one of those Brits that are quietly suffering; so believably unable to discuss anything despite: "it wasn't an incident, it was a catastrophe that had ripped a hole in the middle of her life."). I wasn't sure that Toby's preference for men (and Kit's blatant homophobia) wasn't too offensive. Are we really to assume that since his sister was not really available, no other woman would suffice?

Elinor, herself, was a great, strong character. She is guilty and willing to take the blame for her night with Toby, but she also understands the unfairness of it: "That made her angry too: the cool, rational, accepted explanation which emphasized her weakness, not his." She is as much like he, as he is like her (both tending towards gender-neutral, if you will), but of course the strong woman is preferred to the weak man. I did not like that Toby had a missing twin; that just felt too cheap as a way to explain the connection between them.

I did like the relationship between Paul and Kit; especially "Paul had never had such a strange, unquantifiable relationship with anybody else. Even now, after years of admittedly intermittent contact, he'd have hesitated to call Neville a friend; and yet nobody mattered more. There was nobody whom he so persistently measured himself against." It is not just a rivalry between the two, it is also an understanding and appreciation between.

The dynamics between the men and women and the siblings were interesting and deep; nothing was clear or obvious. Even Elinor and Catherine were not completely defined. At one point, Catherine answers the door only partly dressed and she and Elinor are entwined on the sofa. Again, as Elinor takes on the masculine role it is possible that she and Catherine were also having an affair.

Overall, it was compelling and well done. I'm not sure about some of the biases, but a book that makes me think and question its assumptions is always better than one that doesn't.
Profile Image for Ruth.
158 reviews2 followers
April 22, 2013
I read Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy in the early '90s and was blown away by it. Contemporary fiction with a WW1 background has long been an interest of mine, and those books were a brilliant exposition of the ravages of war and its effect on the soldiers who fought in it, but also gave insight into the early days of psychiatric treatment, and provided a fascinating fictionalized look at the literary process through the real-life characters of Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke.

In Toby's Room, she returns to the same setting and utilizes the same technique of mixing real-life and fictional characters. However, I felt the story is just too slight this time around, and the denouement is predictable and not actually that dramatic when it comes. Elinor's grief is deftly portrayed, but other themes are not really expanded - the role of portrait painting in supporting reconstructive surgery after horrific facial injuries; the controversies around conscientious objectors; the impact of an incestuous encounter on subsequent relationships. The real-life characters are also not really developed (with the possible exception of Tonks), which begs the question of why they were introduced at all, particularly the Bloomsbury set.

I think a lot more could have been done with this novel. Gaps in the narrative, handled carefully, allow the reader to fill them in and enrich the reading experience, but in this case it felt more as if Pat Barker couldn't be bothered developing ideas she'd thrown into the mix. It's an enjoyable read, don't get me wrong, and the second half does have you wanting to find out whether there is going to be a big revelation and whether you'd guessed right. But it's not a patch on the Regeneration trilogy.
1,058 reviews6 followers
February 5, 2013
I liked the cover of this book and picked it up knowing nothing abut it. Turns out to be another war story, this one takes place in England just before WWI then jumps four years to 1917. the story focuses on Elinor, an art student under real life teacher Henry Tonks at The Slade. Part One, in 1914, frames her through her relationship with her older, adored brother Toby as well as her experience at school. Part Two takes place in 1917 after Toby has been sent to France and she senses he will not return. Her struggle to ignore the war and continue painting, is the heart of the book. Seeing Iraq and Afghanistan on every page of the chapters in France and Belgium gave a deeper understanding of both wars and the enormity of suffering all wars bring. A major character ends up at the hospital for severe facial injuries. when Elinor goes to visit him she ends up working with Henry Tonks who is documenting the terrible wounds. Tonks' sketches were hidden for decades but are now on line.

The book is wonderful, with rich characters, and a deep sense of England during the war. And even better, Barker has written an earlier book that covers the time between Parts One and Two. Life Classes. I read Toby's Room first and can't decide if it would be better to have reversed the order. Glad to have chance to read both.
Profile Image for MisterLiberry Head.
592 reviews13 followers
March 6, 2014
Don’t much like Toby. Don’t like his room much, either. But I liked the novel to which this is an awkward sequel, LIFE CLASS (2007), and I think REGENERATION (1991) is a memorable, important novel. TOBY'S ROOM, a slim book, is hard to review without giving up spoilers about what really happened to Toby Brooke, brother of Elinor.

Barker clearly is most interested in the question of how artists respond to war. Like Dr. Rivers of Craiglockhart in the “Regeneration Trilogy,” Henry Tonks--both a surgeon and an art instructor from the Slade School--finds new ways to treat horrifically disfigured veterans at the Queen Mary hospital. Landscape painter Paul Tarrant, futurist Kit Neville and “dissectionist” Elinor Brooke all find their art transformed by what the Western Front shows them. As much as TOBY'S ROOM is about unresolved sexual relationships, obsessive mourning and the moral weight of what one does in wartime, Barker is really writing about A-r-t.

In fairness, I think I would have been more impressed by the Red Cross/hospital narrative if I hadn’t recently read THE DAUGHTERS OF MARS by Thomas Keneally, which is hard to equal for vividly depicting the life of nurses near the front, struggling to put right the human butchery of modern war.
207 reviews7 followers
September 8, 2012
A "companion" to her previous novel, Life Class, (and, for my money, a better book) this novel returns to the era of WWI, a subject which has provided Barker fodder for many of her novels. Medicine, art, medical technology, psychology, and the effects of war conflate in this story of Elinor Brooke, a young upper class art student. Her relationship with her older brother Toby has always been very close, and when Toby, a medical officer, does not return from the battlefield, Elinor becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to him. Booker Award winner Barker's story telling evokes the malaise associated with those of upper class British society who were the survivors among the Lost Generation, and she does an excellent job of describing the life led by Elinor and her friends. I must admit, however, that the revelation of what happened to Toby did not have on me the impact I had anticipated, but maybe I've become jaded with all the WWI reading I've been doing lately. Although this does not rank at the top of recent books I've read, Toby's Room is worth reading and is a good reminder of Barker's brilliant earlier novels, especially the Regeneration Trilogy.
159 reviews8 followers
August 27, 2012
I don't usually bother finishing a book I'm not enjoying (it's my way of making sure reading remains my favourite thing to do, I suppose) but I have such admiration for Pat Barker's writing that I felt a sense of duty to complete this.

The Regeneration trilogy are among my favourite novels, and I think Barker's unflinchingness a far better treatment of World War One that Faulks' more decorous approach in Birdsong. I also enjoyed her subsequent novels, Another World and Border Crossing. Toby's Room, however, left me dissatisfied. I felt that there was a lot of repetition of ideas, rather than exploration and development of ideas, which didn't move on beyond their introduction. The characters are hard to warm to or even to dislike.

As always with Barker, there are some beautiful, and unexpectedly brutal, metaphors - although she rather spelt things out once the metaphor was in place, which is disappointing.

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