Author: Pat Barker
Challenges: TBR Pile 2015
Rating: Five out of five stars
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.
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.