23. Toby’s Room, by Pat Barker

10 Aug
The UK cover is so much better, as usual

The UK cover is so much better, as usual

“Pat Barker is one of our greatest living novelists and nobody buys her anymore,” a clerk at McNally Jackson told me this weekend, while recommending Toby’s Room. I’ve read Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy several times, and Blow Your House Down, and was glad to be reminded of this wonderful novelist, and to discover that Toby’s Room was another World War I novel, like the Regeneration Trilogy, though not based on historical figures. That the Regeneration Trilogy is based on Sigfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves—incidentally, all men struggling with some degree of homosexuality, long before that was ok—gives it especial power and poignancy for me. Maybe I shouldn’t, but I’ve always read it as history.

Toby’s Room tells an intertwined story about Elinor Brooke, a young female art student, her brother Toby, a medical officer on the front, and Kit and Paul, two other young painters and soldiers who get tangled up in the Brooke family’s affairs, which are of course repressed, secretive and wounded. In an early scene from Elinor’s perspective, Barker writes “She wondered about the curious mixture of poking and prying and secrecy that ruled their lives.”

The secrecy within the family is mirrored, eventually, by the great secrecy of the war. Letters are censored, the official “war artists” (both Paul and Kit, by the book’s end) are not allowed to show corpses, but mainly the men who were there find it impossible to talk about. In a chapter from Paul’s perspective, Barker writes that, “It had become a preoccupation of his—almost an obsession—working out how the war had changed him; other people too, of course. He never managed to talk openly about it…”.

The visible effects of the war that Paul and Kit bring back, are wounds. Paul has a bad knee, Kit an extremely terrible facial disfigurement. Elinor finds work in a war hospital, drawing the wounded. Paul and Kit paint landscapes to paint about the war. At one point late in the book during a conversation about painting, Kit tells Paul that “‘your landscapes are bodies,'” and Paul agrees, “‘the wound and the wasteland are the same thing. They aren’t metaphors for each other, it’s closer than that.'”

Barker draws her underpinnings so delicately, and with such mastery that it’s difficult to pick any one resonance to discuss—they’re everywhere. The characters are haunted by wounds, haunted by corpses, grappling with repressed sexualities; they wish for silence and blindness and by the end must choose to speak and see. Small flashes of humanity are the only antidote to the crippling horror of the war.

I’m probably not doing justice to how gripping and fast-moving the story is, nor to the stunning beauty of Barker’s prose, in which no description fails to echo all that swirls beneath the surface. Elinor’s experience dissecting a cadaver (in an anatomy class taken to further her drawing) has become linked in her mind with a night with a lover “as if it were his body on the slab: familiar, frightening and unknown.”

After a terrible incident in the first chapter, the second begins with this description: “Every window gaped wide, as if the house were gasping for breath. Barely visible above the trees, a small, hard, white sun threatened the heat to come. Mother’s precious lawn had turned yellow, with bald patches here and there where the cracked earth showed through. Elinor chased clumps of pale yellow scrambled egg around her plate….”

I am pleased to re-discover Pat Barker, and I see that there’s another recent novel, Still Life, also about the art college in London during the war, which I’d like to read as well. So thanks, McNally Jackson guy. Wish I’d gotten your name.

2 Responses to “23. Toby’s Room, by Pat Barker”


  1. Fear, by Gabriel Chevallier | An Anthology of Clouds - October 2, 2014

    […] of Books imprint is so shocking. It stands alone among everything I’ve read about that war (which is quite a bit) in that the author describes it. He strips away that long-preserved mystery (for me) of what it […]

  2. 39. & 40. The Eye in the Door, by Pat Barker | An Anthology of Clouds - November 13, 2015

    […] Pat Barker‘s Regeneration Trilogy is the best work of fiction ever written about World War I (I know!, but I’m sticking to it). The first volume, Regeneration, is set at the Craiglockhart mental hospital and dramatizes events in the lives of the famous early psychiatrist W.H.R Rivers, the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, the writer Robert Graves (author of I Claudius), and others. […]

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