Book Review: Toby's Room by Pat Barker

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.

Book Review: Sacred County, Rose Tremain

Sacred CountrySacred Country by Rose Tremain My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mary Ward stands shivering in a Suffolk, England field in February, 1952 and realizes she is meant to be a boy. She is just six years old. Within its opening pages Sacred Country promises to take you on a literary journey that will be long and painful. Rest assured, it will also be beautiful and transformative.

Although Mary and her quest for her physical identity are at the heart of Sacred Country, it is a book full of souls searching for emotional purchase. Mary's mother has a tenuous grip on sanity, losing her way at intervals and regaining her footing in a nearby mental hospital; Mary's father is in danger of losing the family farm and slips further into madness borne of anger and alcohol; her brother loses his dream of becoming an Olympic swimmer because he is too afraid to dive. A village friend, Walter, dreams of becoming a country-and-western singer, but must take over the family butcher shop when his father dies. It seems that there is nothing but heartbreak in gray and lifeless post-war Britain, that the future is alive in vibrant cities and on warm continents but in rural England the past rots in small and suspicious minds.

Yet Tremain offers enough light in the gloom that hope propels you on. Mary's awkward courage as she stumbles through her transformation from Mary to Martin makes her so lovable. A small but formidable defense of friends and loved ones surrounds her: her grandfather, who accepts her unconditionally; her beloved teacher who embraces her intellect and shelters her when home life becomes unbearable; the cricket-bat maker who believes in reincarnation; his maid (who becomes his lover, then his wife) and her daughter, Pearl, who breaks Mary's heart and helps it to heal.

Rose Tremain's writing is flawless. Although this is a narrative focused on character development, the plot moves steadily forward. Although there are many characters and several sub-plots, there is a sense of the whole within each part. Vivid details of time and place hold you firmly in each era, the characters evolving with their age, changing with the times. The characters' senses of humor and irony clear the air that could easily turn maudlin under the pen of a less-deft writer.

This is a book about transformation, about letting go of those who cannot change and embracing those who try. Sacred Country touched me profoundly with its humanity, its hope, its brutality and its intense love. It is rare that I close a book and cry at its end. This is a rare book, indeed.

View all my reviews