‘[T]he weak middle of a good trilogy’ – Toby’s Room by Pat Barker

It’s tricky, reviewing the new Pat Barker – a First World War novel by the doyenne of First World War novels – because she’s her own only viable competition and it seems a little churlish to keep referring everything back to the Regeneration trilogy. But, churlish notwithstanding, it’s an inevitability, especially as the new book, Toby’s Room, is the second in what seems to be another wartime trilogy and it’s set quite a bit in hospitals and it uses real-life figures in what’s become Barker’s trademark move, the fact/fiction arty wartime mash-up. While Regeneration et al used the lives of the WWI poets (Sassoon) and their psychiatrist (WHR Rivers), Life Class and Toby’s Room use fictional painters and a real surgeon/artist (Henry Tonks) in the same way. (The Bloomsbury group pop up too, as renowned conscientious objectors and war-ignorers.) There’s similar themes (the morality of war, the morality of art and war, or art in war, or war in art), a similar examination of male bonding (Paul and Lewis in Life Class; Paul and Kit in both), and a similar exploration of complex sexuality (homosexuality, incest). Toby’s Room, though, is told largely from a female perspective (which Barker has done with great aplomb before, of course, but it’s nice to see it in the wartime setting). It bookends Life Class, in that it begins a couple of years before the first book does and then jumps through to the later years of the war, so that we’re given some context in which to consider both the events of Toby’s Room, but also, retrospectively, those of Life Class.

So: Life Class is about a group of art students at the Slade in London (Elinor, Paul, Kit and a few hangers-on) who are under the tuition of Henry Tonks (one-time surgeon, now drawing teacher) and whose lives are disrupted once war breaks out. Elinor is in a rather ineffectual, action-less love triangle with the two boys, but eventually hooks up with Paul after he heads over to Ypres to be an ambulance driver. The relationship then fizzles out after its much-delayed consummation. The perspective in this books shifts, but mostly it’s Paul’s story. Toby’s Room, then, despite similar head-hopping, is Elinor’s tale. When her brother, Toby, is killed (reported missing) in action, she rekindles her now-faded relationship with Paul to try and get him to find out from Kit (who was in Toby’s unit) what actually happened. (And, as an aside, how, having been there in Life Class, either of the men could have possibly been surprised by Toby’s, eh, business, is anybody’s guess.) Now, Paul’s been wounded, but Kit’s been really wounded – he’s recuperating in the same facial injuries hospital where Henry Tonks is at work sketching the men’s horrific wounds (the work for which he’ll later become most famous). So Elinor manipulates Paul to get him to manipulate Kit (both of these men love or have loved her, remember) all in the name of her dead brother, with whom (spoiler alert – but this revelation comes really early in the book, so it’s not much of a spoiler) she’s had an incestuous affair – which was, of course, her first sexual experience. That explains her sexual reticence (much commented upon in Life Class) and it’s actually rather well-done, though it sounds very Flowers In The Attic when I recount it here. Anyway, Paul takes on her cause (because he’s a sucker) and eventually extracts the story from a reluctant, traumatised Kit. I won’t burst the bubble here, as I said, but it’s not much of a shocker when it does come out.

I realise I sound a little flippant above, but the plot isn’t really the most interesting thing about Toby’s Room – and neither, really, is Toby, nor Elinor, nor their relationship, nor Elinor’s relationship with either of her tormented male leads. It’s not very surprising that the strongest parts of Toby’s Room (and the trilogy so far – I expect the next book will pick up Kit’s story) are the fractious, competitive relationship between those two male leads and the art/war morality debates that all of the characters use to irritate one another. In a meta touch, of course, Barker’s mining war for our entertainment, so in effect she’s taking Kit’s side; what’s good about the way the books play out, though, is how we see Elinor and Paul grapple with their ideas about their work and what’s an appropriate subject for art. For all Elinor’s pure high-mindedness, she’s constantly painting her own morally abhorrent relationship (as one might see it) with her own brother and her stance on war is inconsistent and shifting – much as the readers’ might well be. And as for the male-on-male bonding, the unhappy push-pull between Kit and Paul (acknowledged modernist talent versus suspected workhorse) is excellently handled. Kit’s easily the most interesting character in his own right (this is true of Life Class, too, I think) – while Elinor’s story, incest aside, is pretty by-numbers (mourning sister seeks to know a truth she probably already knew, really, about her brother) and Paul’s an everyman – a good reader-stand-in but a little dull as he is. Oh, and the Henry Tonks hospital sections are excellent – not for the faint of heart, though, and it’ll make you appreciate your own (hopefully) intact nasal region.

What was it like, though? Well, I, of course, made the classic error of reading the wrong book first (PR departments! This info ought to go into your press releases!) As a stand-alone, I thought it was decent – well-written, entertaining, atmospheric and as informative as I’ve come to expect from a Barker WWI book – but that the plot let it down; having then read Life Class and revisited Toby’s Room, I thought the plot deficiencies will probably translate into the weak middle of a good trilogy and that the main point here wasn’t plot, but the explication of themes and characters that the reader ought already to be familiar with. You could (I did) read it alone without getting confused – there’s enough backstory and useful repetition to make it coherent – but, obviously, it benefits from the greater context. The writing is simple and elegant – Barker’s a traditionalist in her prose, if innovative in her use of real people in her texts. But while I was left wanting to hear Kit’s tale, and so will read the next instalment when it appears, I wasn’t left slack-jawed like I was after Regeneration, etc. As well-written, atmospheric and informative as these two books are, they tread very similar ground to her previous well-written, atmospheric and informative novels about the British World War One experience. I know that there’s the ‘ain’t broke/don’t fix’ school of thought, but I did find myself thinking, ah, this again.

Any Cop?: Yes, with reservations, depending on whether you’re after something quite familiar or otherwise. I liked it but didn’t love it; a Pat Barker book is always worth a read, and the war/art topic is a good one, but this particular work of art might not change your world.

 Valerie O’Riordan

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