Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Toby's Room by Pat Barker


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The book's description from the publisher's website:

With Toby’s Room, a sequel to her widely praised previous novel Life Class, the incomparable Pat Barker confirms her place in the pantheon of Britain’s finest novelists. This indelible portrait of a family torn apart by war focuses on Toby Brooke, a medical student, and his younger sister Elinor. Enmeshed in a web of complicated family relationships, Elinor and Toby are close: some might say too close. But when World War I begins, Toby is posted to the front as a medical officer while Elinor stays in London to continue her fine art studies at the Slade, under the tutelage of Professor Henry Tonks. There, in a startling development based in actual fact, Elinor finds that her drafting skills are deployed to aid in the literal reconstruction of those maimed in combat.

One day in 1917, Elinor has a sudden premonition that Toby will not return from France. Three weeks later the family receives a telegram informing them that Toby is “Missing, Believed Killed” in Ypres. However, there is no body, and Elinor refuses to accept the official explanation. Then she finds a letter hidden in the lining of Toby’s uniform; Toby knew he wasn’t coming back, and he implies that fellow soldier Kit Neville will know why.

 There can never be enough books about WWI experience. Not for me, at least. I will never know enough. But with each, well-written story I learn more. And Toby's Room is exceptionally well-written with crisp simplicity that cuts to the bone. This was my first experience with Ms. Parker's (a Booker Prize winner) writing and it left me in awe of how the lack of flowery, ornate writing opens the door to clarity.This clarity is essential to make the human tragedy that continued long after the war was over, real to the contemporary reader (we all know it was real, but knowing and actually feeling are two different experiences).

Even though Toby's Room is a sequel to Life Class, it's also a stand-alone novel. I read it without having a clue it was a sequel and had no issues with being confused about characters or previous story-lines that you sometimes get dropped right in the middle of when starting with book two in a series. I was however quite shocked with the strong beginning, wondering whether I really was reading what I thought I was. I loved how Pat Barker so unassumingly led me from a straight path on to a hurl down a sharp hill in the beginning chapters  and then ended the story in the same, unexpected manner - one of the final scenes, the story of Neville's about what happened with Toby truly took my breath away and I found myself wiping tears off my cheeks in disbelief. My strong emotions however were not due to some shocking, suspend-your-disbelief-now event (it was something rather quite believable) but to the author's mastery of writing. It felt like she set a trap for me with her calming, down to earth, simple story-telling just to deliver a heartbreaking blow.

The whole book is sad, of course. I mean, how can it not be? It's about the worst coming-of-age experience possible. You enter your late adolescence full of dreams, ideas, crazy fooling around and then it all just stops, it's taken away because your guy friends, fiancees, boyfriends have to go and fight and die, or come home terribly disfigured, most likely with wounds to their bodies, souls and spirits that will never heal. And then you start to think those horrible but inevitable thoughts that maybe dying on the war front would have been better. That's what Toby's Room is and it's beautiful in the sorrow of the bright, talented people who were denied a chance. Life would never, could never, be back to what it was supposed to be. Life was now this:

It seemed, looking back, that he's grown around the loss, that it [grief] had become part of him, as trees will sometimes incorporate an obstruction, so they end up living, but deformed. (loc.1888-90, Kindle ed.)*

But then, the most surprising thing was to find out that despite the tragedy, the talent prevailed and was used in one of the most amazing ways and also, again, heartbreaking ways: to help the doctors with reconstructive surgeries performed on the surviving soldiers, painting those wounded before and after surgeries. If you're interested (and you should be), please see some of those paintings by Henry Tonks (who was also featured in Toby's Room) at Gillies Archives.

FTC: I received an e-galley of Toby's Room from the publisher, Doubleday via Edelweiss.

* The quote is from an unfinished copy. Please verify against a published book.