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Toby's Room by Pat Barker
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Toby's Room (original 2012; edition 2012)

by Pat Barker

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256None44,579 (4.02)25
Member:sblock
Title:Toby's Room
Authors:Pat Barker
Info:Doubleday (2012), Hardcover, 320 pages
Collections:Untitled collection
Rating:*****
Tags:2012, WWI, fiction

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Toby's Room by Pat Barker (2012)

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Pat Barker illuminates the destruction of a family when Toby, a favourite son, is missing and believed killed in action during WWI. His parents already fragile marriage disintegrate following his death. Details of his death are not disclosed and his sister, Elinor, is desperate to find answers. Her obsession with her brother and her deep grief following his death is captured in all her paintings as she turns into a recluse in the family mansion. Her attempts at uncovering details of his death are futile and she senses there is more to his death than his officers are willing to disclose. In desperation, she turns to an old lover for help. Will his dark secrets follow him to his unmarked grave or will she get the answers that will allow her closure?

Written with great sensitivity, this was a difficult book to put down. ( )
  cameling | Feb 4, 2014 |
This is Pat Barker's latest depiction of the lives of mainly upper-class English people before, during and after the First World War. The central characters are a sister and a brother, both with secrets to hide about and from each other. He is a doctor who serves in the war; she is a painter who is determined to ignore the war, although all of the young men she knows fight and return profoundly changed, many of them permanently injured.
  Lynnkc | Dec 7, 2013 |
As a fan of Barker's brilliant Regeneration series, I had high hopes for Toby's Room, but I confess to being somewhat underwhelmed. Art student Elinor Brooke, familiar to readers of Life Class, returns at the heart of the story. World War I is peering over the horizon but has not yet crossed the English shores, and Elinor's greatest concerns are her art classes at the Slade, her parents' dissolving marriage, and her close relationship with her older brother Toby. But something disturbing happens, causing a rupture that brother and sister can never quite repair. Still, Elinor persists with her classes and Toby finished his medical degree. And then the war takes over.

Fast forward a few years. Toby has signed up as a medic and is serving in France, and Elinor is getting a bit bored with the Slade, uncertain of what she will do when her studies are completed. News comes that Toby has gone missing in action and is presumed dead. Shortly after, a package with his belongings arrives, and Elinor finds a brief note among them, addressed to her. In it, Toby mysteriously reveals that he won't be coming back. Convinced that he must still be alive, Elinor sets out to solve the mystery. She enlists the help of Paul Tarrant, a fellow Slade student and former lover who has just returned from the war with a severe leg injury, and the two of them focus on another former student, Kit Neville, who served with Toby as a stretcher bearer. Kit is among the patients of Dr. Harold Gillies (a factual person, the 'father' of modern plastic surgery) at Queen Mary Hospital, all of whom have suffered traumatic facial injuries.

Fortunately for Elinor, she is offered a job by Henry Tonks (another real person), her former professor, drawing the faces of the injured. The purpose of the drawings is educational: to assist Dr. Gillies in facial reconstruction and to create an archive of his efforts for other surgeons. In this capacity, she is able to visit Kit, but he is either unable or unwilling to tell her anything about Toby's apparent demise. Paul strikes up an uneasy friendship with Kit, partly out of sympathy for a fellow artist and wounded warrior, but partly in hopes of aiding Elinor.

The truth is finally revealed in the last pages of the book. Don't worry--no spoilers here. But I am rather puzzled at just how Toby got from Point A to Point C. Barker seems to imply a cause-and-effect between two events that just doesn't make sense to me. Putting that aside, however, there are many things to commend in Toby's Room. The characters are well drawn and, as always, Barker gives us a portrait of war and its effects on human lives that is both brutal and poignant. While I can't recommend this novel as highly as Regeneration, it is certainly worth reading, especially for Barker fans or for those interested in the impact of the war on those at home and the extraordinary efforts to mend the wounded. ( )
2 vote Cariola | Oct 7, 2013 |
Toby’s Room is a companion novel to Life Class, I had thought it was a sequel – but it is not really, the novel would stand alone. However I am glad I read the novels in this order. In Life Class we met Elinor Brooke, Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville and these characters are central to Toby’s Room as well. When I was reading Life Class I found Elinor a cold and elusive character and after reading Toby’s Room I find she remains just a little out of reach –I am sure this is deliberate.
Toby’s Room opens two years before the events in Life Class – Elinor and her brother Toby have had a special close relationship since they were small, they even look alike – especially once Elinor has cut off her hair. Elinor is an art student at the Slade, studying under surgeon/artist Henry Tonks – a difficult and exacting tutor – who later in the war spends his time drawing portraits of horribly disfigured men. Henry Tonks is a character taken from life – his drawings of wounded men can still be seen today. Toby is a medical student. In the suffocating atmosphere of their family home, their parents leading separate lives, their traditionally married sister rather smug and critical, Elinor and Toby’s relationship is complex, and as the lines between them blur their relationship changes forever.
“Somehow or other they had to get back to the ways things were. What had happened was not something that could be talked about, or explained, or analysed, or in any other way resolved. It could only be forgotten.”
Five years later, and the war has taken its toll on Elinor and her Slade friends. Paul back from France with a permanent limp and in constant pain is more fortunate than some. Toby – who had spent his time serving as a doctor on the front line, patching up the injured – even leaving the relative safety of his post to bring back injured men from the mud of the trenches, constantly putting himself in harm’s way – is “missing presumed dead.” Kit Neville had been part of Toby’s unit – but is now lying in a facial injuries hospital – the hospital where his old tutor Tonks draws the faces of disfigured men.
With Toby missing presumed dead, Elinor has something missing in herself, her grief is raw and terrible. Coldly refusing to have anything to do with the war, the war has finally come to her, with Toby’s death and Paul and Kit’s injuries. Still strongly committed to her art she has produced many landscape paintings of the countryside around their childhood home – in every one there is a shadow, a presence of the brother that is gone. Back in the family home – which is in the process of being broken up – is Toby’s Room, which remains a powerful reminder for Elinor.
“Lying between the sheets, she felt different; her body had turned into bread dough, dough that's been kneaded and pounded till it's grey, lumpen, no yeast in it, no lightness, no prospect of rising. Her arms lay stiff by her sides. When, finally, she drifted off to sleep, she dreamt she was on her knees in a corner of the room, trying to vomit without attracting the attention of the person who was asleep on the bed. Her eyes wide open in the darkness, she tried to cast off the dream, but it stayed with her till morning.”
In fact Toby is a constant haunting presence throughout the novel, although he is mainly seen through the memories of Elinor’s artist friends – especially the morphine induced hallucinations of Kit Neville.
When Paul visits Elinor and seeing the paintings she has finished, he is concerned by her apparent obsession to find out exactly what happened to Toby. Having had his belongings returned to the house, Elinor discovers part of an unfinished letter in the lining of Toby’s jacket – which puzzles her. When she writes to Kit Neville – who had served with her brother – she receives no reply. When Kit is returned to England with horrible facial injuries – Elinor insists on going to see him, despite Tonks having warned Paul to leave him alone. At the facial injuries hospital Elinor finds work to do alongside her former tutor – work that bring her into contact with Kit. There is a mystery surrounding Toby’s death, Elinor is convinced of that, and she enlists Paul’s help in finding out what that is.
Toby’s Room is a blistering account of the ravages of war on people, their relationships and - in a departure from other WW1 novels – their art. I love Pat Barker’s writing – and although Life Class and Toby’s Room are not quite as powerful as the utterly brilliant Regeneration trilogy – there are still many beautifully written passages infused with Barkers brilliant understatement, which leave the reader with a host of remarkable images to ponder on. ( )
  Heaven-Ali | May 23, 2013 |
Pat Barker, as always, writes a brilliant novel about WWI, with great fictional characters interpersed with--and based on--fascinating real ones like Henry Tonks and Dr Gillies, the father of plastic surgery. ( )
  lxydis | May 11, 2013 |
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Elinor arrived home at four o'clock on Friday and went straight to her room. She hung the red dress on the wardrobe door, glancing at it from time to time as she brushed her hair. The neckline seemed to be getting lower by the minute. In the end her nerve failed her.
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A portrait of an upper-class family torn by World War I centers on an anguished sister whose beloved brother goes missing in action, in an epic tale that explores the experiences of the family members and the working-class people who support them.

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Penguin Australia

Two editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0241145228, 0141042206

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