Like Pat Barker’s earlier Regeneration novels, Toby’s Room takes an unflinching look at the human consequences of war. The plot is built on the intense relationship between a brother and sister, Toby and Elinor Brooke. Toby is an officer during WW1. His sister, Elinor, is an artist studying under Henry Tonks at the Slade School of Art in London in 1912. Among Elinor’s classmates are artists Kit Neville and Paul Tarrant, both of whom — like Toby — are subsequently drawn into the great war.
The first part of Toby’s Room describes Elinor’s intense relationship with Toby, her somewhat ambiguous relationships with Kit Neville, Paul Tarrant and Catherine Stein and her development as an artist under the direction of Henry Tonks.
Having completed her studies, Elinor returns to live with her mother. She has a premonition that Toby will not return from the war and when he is reported ‘Missing, Believed Killed’ she becomes tormented by the need to find out what happened. She believes that Kit Neville may have information but her attempts to contact Kit prove fruitless and so she enlists Paul Tarrant to persuade Kit to fill in the missing details.
Paul and Kit are both struggling with injuries they received in the war and the strongest section of Toby’s Room is the exploration of Kit’s reaction to the war. When she learns that Kit has been hospitalised as a result of serious facial injury, Elinor persuades Paul to accompany her to the hospital where Kit is being treated by Harold Gillies. At the hospital, Elinor meets Tonks who is working to illustrate the war injuries being treated by Gillies at the hospital. Tonks and Gillies are real historical figures and examples of the work of Henry Tonks can be viewed online in the Gillies Archives.
The relationship that develops between Paul and Kit is perhaps the most interesting element of Toby’s Room and strong themes relating to art and war are explored in the interactions between these two characters. Through them, Elinor ultimately finds her way to the truth about Toby and is able to ‘move on’ from the past.
At 267 pages, Toby’s Room is a relatively short novel but Pat Barker spins an intense and powerful tale with believable characters and interesting themes.
I purchased the Kindle edition of Toby’s Room by Pat Barker on amazon.com
ISBN: 0241144574. Publisher: Penguin (August 16, 2012)