Given the breadth and depth of war fiction, it is equally inevitable that each reader will have a “best of genre” selection. For this reader, that nod goes to Pat Barker for her Regeneration trilogy (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and the Booker Prize winning Ghost Road). The first novel is the author’s version of the story of anti-war poet Siegfried Sassoon and neurologist/psychoanalyst/anthropologist W.H.R. Rivers’ treatment of his shell shock. While Regeneration is mainly about the upper class men who fought in WWI, Barker discovers some interesting working class characters in that process — Rivers is present in all three volumes of the trilogy, but the plebian officer Billy Prior moves to the centre in the concluding one. Taken together, the three are as good an examination as I have read of the effects of war on the individuals and societies involved (okay, Tolstoy did a pretty fair job on the same themes as well).
The trilogy was my introduction to Barker (pre-blog, unfortunately, so there are no reviews here) and I have been a reader of both her back catalogue and new works ever since. She struck another responsive chord with KfC in 2007 with Life Class. I have an affection for novels about art and artists — this one focuses on a group of students (like the characters in Regeneration, many drawn from real life) at London’s Slade School of Fine Art in the years leading up to WWI.
All of which is a long introduction to explain why I was looking forward to Toby’s Room. It returns to many of the characters who featured in Life Class (but you don’t have to have read that one to appreciate this one). They have now graduated, only to find themselves part of the British war effort rather than practising artists, taking us into the world of the Regeneration trilogy.
All Barker’s novels, characters and plots have their dark sides and in Toby’s Room she wastes little time exposing them. We first meet the narrator, Elinor Brooke, in 1912 on a return home from the Slade for a family weekend — the only thing she is looking forward to about it is seeing her brother Toby, also in London as a medical student but they rarely see each other there. The two take a walk to their childhood hideaway, a disused mill. Childhood memories suddenly give way to present impulses:
He grabbed her arms and pulled her towards him. Crushed against his chest, hardly able to breathe, she laughed and struggled, taking this for the start of some childish game, but then his lips fastened on to hers with a groping hunger that shocked her into stillness. His tongue thrust between her lips, a strong, muscular presence. She felt his chin rough against her cheek, the breadth of his chest and shoulders, not that round, androgynous, childish softness that had sometimes made them seem like two halves of a single person. She started to struggle again, really struggle, but his hand came up and cupped her breast and she felt herself softening, flowing towards him, as if something hard and impacted in the pit of her stomach had begun to melt.
Both are shocked by what has happened but that “melting” does not stop: Elinor goes to Toby’s room that night and the two consummate their “affair”.
Having given us incest in chapter one, Barker does not let up in the next few chapters. Through the combined influence of the Slade’s director, Henry Tonks (one of the real-life characters in the novel), and Toby, Elinor has been allowed to enrol in an anatomy lab at the medical school — Tonks believes that a hands-on knowledge of anatomy will improve her drawing. Here is Elinor meeting her cadaver:
Mantegna’s Dead Christ. From where Elinor stood at the foot of the slab, the feet appeared huge, out of all proportion to the body. His face was dark, the eyes shuttered; nobody could have mistaken this stillness for sleep. Freed from the apprehension of an answering gaze, she let her eyes slide down, across the soaring chancel arch of his ribcage, along the flat nave of his belly to where his penis lay, a shrivelled seahorse on an outcrop of wrinkled and sagging skin.
Barker shows no pity for the squeamish reader — several chapters are devoted to the complete dissection of the cadaver. Like the incest she introduced at the start of the book, this supplies context that will prove essential in later sections.
Not of all that context-setting is quite so gruesome. Barker also introduces two of Elinor’s fellow students at the Slade — the upper-class fop, Kit Neville, and Paul Tarrant, a working class lad lucky to get into the toffy school. When we get to the present-day narrative that forms the bulk of the book five years later in 1917, these three (with a strong supporting role for Tonks) become the driving cast of the novel.
That present day thread is set in motion with the arrival of a telegram announcing that Toby is “Missing, Believed Killed” in France. It is a telegram that leads to an obsession for Elinor: Is Toby truly dead? And what really happened?
She first enlists the help of Tarrant, to whom she was briefly engaged, now back from the war because of a serious leg injury, but starting a new career as a government-paid war artist. Kit Neville was part of Toby’s unit when he went missing — Elinor and Paul track him down at Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup, Kent where he is having his face re-built as a result of his own war injury. And, just to complete the circle, Tonks is working at the hospital, sketching the faces of patients as they undergo reconstructive surgery (this too is real — you can find some of the sketches online here). Tonks hires Elinor as an assistant portraitist — the process of getting Neville to reveal the story proves to be a long one so she is eager to be on site.
Did Toby’s Room replace the Regeneration trilogy in my “war genre” ranking? No — it didn’t come close to accomplishing that, but do not take that as a criticism. In the final analysis of this novel, the war experience actually is more background than foreground; this is a novel about how fractured individuals (which we all are) come face-to-face with life-crippling events. Barker is not just a realist writer, she is ruthless in her realism, a trait shared by few novelists. Undoubtedly, that may prove too much for some (and I can understand why); for this reader, it was again proof positive that Barker is an exceptional novelist, one whom I will keep reading as long as she keeps writing.