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 once 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 and 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.