Toby’s Room

 
Title: Toby’s Room

Author: Pat Barker

Published: 2012

Challenges: TBR Pile 2015

Rating: Five out of five stars

Synopsis

When Elinor Brooke’s older brother, Toby disappears on a French battlefield in 1917 she wants to get to the bottom of the ‘Missing, Believed Killed’ report her family received.  Throughout her life her relationship with Toby has been close, close to the point where it is hard for them to explain and discuss their relationship, and she can’t accept the reports of his death.  Elinor wants to discover the truth about Toby’s death, so she writes to an old friend from Art College, Kit Neville, who has been horrifically wounded and was the last man to see Toby alive.  Neville ignores Elinor’s letters so she relies on her former lover and fellow ex Art student, Paul Tarrant to help solve the mysterious death of her much loved brother. 

My Thoughts

I always forget that, as well as drawing on the real life horrors of the First World War, Barker uses real life war figures as some of the inspiration behind her novels and their stories are often subtly interwoven into the background of her main characters.  In Toby’s Room Barker writes about the real life portraits of soldiers with horrific facial injuries – painted by Henry Tonks – to bring a wounded Kit Neville back into Elinor’s life and thus enabling her to discover the truth about her brother’s death.  I love it when real life figures unexpectantly turn up in fiction as it makes me eager to carry out more research and to learn more about these people; such a geek! And of course this makes me extra happy as I love anything about the First World War.  Again I forget that Barker’s writing has this effect on me and Barker’s writing is truly beautiful.  Her understanding and depiction of the horrors of the war is just heart wrenching and yet hauntingly beautiful at the same time.  I’m usually pretty rubbish at remembering to highlights quotations or parts of novels I particularly like, but I did it this time and the following is just one of sentences I found so perfect and relatable: 

‘ A hole opened up in the conversation and we all stared in to it, until several people at once rushed in to fill the silence.’ 

How beautiful is that sentence? 

Throughout Toby’s Room there is the mystery surrounding Toby’s death; a mystery that was actually quite unexpected but in hindsight makes sense, which I guess is the sign of a good mystery. It is clear from the beginning that there is more to Toby’s death than meets the eye but this is not thrown down the readers’ throats and is actually subtly explored, with more focus placed on the living and them getting to grips with their own life changing injuries than the dead, which certainly makes sense when thinking about war.  The hospital scenes and the descriptions of the injuries and the procedures and operations these soldiers went through is both fascinating and horrifying in equal measure.  This aspect of the First World War is so interesting to read about, especially when you think about how limited they were in terms of technology and this is just another reason why I loved this book. 

I enjoy anything that teaches me new facts about the First World War, even if they do make me incredibly sad. Perhaps one of the saddest facts I learnt when reading Toby’s Room was about all the poor dachshunds (sausage dogs) that were killed because they were a German breed.  I also found the methods doctors and surgeons used to help those with facial injuries an interesting area for further research.

If you haven’t ever read any of Barker’s novels about the First World War I can strongly recommend them, especially The Regeneration Trilogy. 

Regeneration

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When I was applying for my PGCE I did some voluntary work experience at a local school, focusing on A Level teaching in particular and the AS students were focusing on a World War One unit, looking at various literature written during or at least set in the era. The novel they were reading was Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road. This is the final book in the Regeneration Trilogy and although I hadn’t read the first two books I read it anyway. A year or so later I picked up a copy of Regeneration at a charity shop and it languished on my shelves for a good 24 months before I finally put it on my TBR Pile 2014 and got round to reading it this month.

Regeneration focuses on Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland and the work of Dr Rivers, a psychiatrist working with men who have been wounded and thus traumatised by their experiences in the trenches. It is 1917 and among his patients are the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who has been sent to Craiglockhart after his anti war protest letter to Parliament and Wilfred Owen, who has yet to publish any of his poems and hero worships Sassoon. Although these characters are based on real life they are interwoven with fictional characters and a fictional narrative, making this a novel that merges both genres and explores the impact of the war in numerous interesting ways. Through Barker’s novel we learn about a variety of war time experiences that had a profound effect on those who lived through them, as well as the types of treatment used to ‘cure’ these men of their illnesses and thus ensure they return to the front and to fight for their country as quickly as possible.

I really feel as though my reading has taken a back seat in the past few months, especially as I am finding it difficult to have a work/life balance at times. Despite feeling as though I have taken forever to read this book (and 250 pages is hardly an epic read) I thoroughly enjoyed Regeneration. Those who know me or read my blog regularly will know that I have a keen interest in the First World War, most specifically the image of the soldier hero and how men coped with the horrific conditions they were faced with throughout the course of these four years. I loved how Barker mixed reality and fiction and explored some of the different mental effects the war had and the treatments used to ‘cure’ these. I was particularly interested/horrified at the use of electric shocks to cure mutism. One incident focused on the doctor refusing to let a patient leave the room until he could speak properly again; it is incredible to think how far treatments and understanding has come since then.

As I was reading I did highlight several quotation that struck me; I won’t share all of them, but I will include a few favourites.

‘They’d been trained to identify emotional repression as the essence of manliness. Men who broke down, or cried, or admitted to feeling fear, were sissies, weaklings, failures. Not men.’ Rivers is contemplating the work he does and I feel it sums up how men thought and were viewed at the time. There was only one acceptable form of manliness and if you didn’t adhere to it you clearly weren’t a man. You can imagine how this ideal had a profound effect on the men of the era and their decision as to whether or not they should fight for their country. What would society think if they didn’t? An idea that links to ‘the war had promised so much in the way of ‘manly’ activity had actually delivered ‘feminine’ passivity.’

Way back when I was choosing a topic for my MA dissertation I toyed with the idea of focusing on shell shock and the treatment of those suffering from physical and mental injuries after the war. As I was researching the topic I came across the notion that society essentially ignored these men after the war and that little was done to support them, which is why they resorted to begging in the streets. There were some hospitals specifically for war injuries, however these were few and far between. But of course the country didn’t need a constant reminder of the sacrifice a whole generation of men had made for them and this is clear when one of the characters leaves a hospital via the back exit and comes across a group of men horrifically mutilated ‘they’d been pushed out here to get sun, but not right outside, and not at the front of the hospital where their mutilations might have been seen by passers-by.’ What a horrible feeling to know that you have given your all for your country only to be hidden away where no one can see you.

Overall I really enjoyed reading Regeneration and I can highly recommend it to anyone interested in this period of history. I do want to read the next book in the trilogy and reread the last, but I feel it may be a while as I have an awful lot of books on the shelf.

Regeneration has contributed towards three challenges:
TBR Pile 2014
Reading the Twentieth Century
Filling in the Gaps
(which I am rubbish at remembering to do)
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