on 9 October 2013
Beautifully written as you'd expect, and also as you'd expect, extremely moving. The story is centred around the relationship between brother and sister, Toby and Elinor, though we don't actually see toby 'on stage' so to speak. Elinor is a pretty unlikable character, and part of Pat Barker's genius is not to compromise on this, but to make her empathetic. She's seriously mixed up, but she's also selfish, she buries her head in the sand, she'd cold and quite mercilessly cruel at times, but as the book unfolds, you understand why, and you don't so much warm to her, as 'get' her.
The book is about the destructive nature of war, obviously, but it's also about the destructive nature of love, and the nature of beauty. I did expect, from the blurb, that there would be more focus on this part of things, but the hospital and its patients came into the story quite late, and to be honest, I felt they were a device not well-enough used. Elinor's role, as a medical illustrator, wasn't really explored, and so the conflict between her experience of beauty and what she saw there wasn't really explored either, save to say that she didn't know how to look at the resultant art
However, this was a very moving book and it dealt with a very moving subject. I don't think 'enjoy' is the word I'd use for my experience in reading it, but you know what I mean.
This is the first work by this author I have come across. Set in England it tells the story of Elinor and her family, although primarily her brother Toby, before, during and after World War I. Starting in 1912, Elinor's life seems to have a new purpose as she struggles to pin down her own identity as an independent woman. But she is trouble by a side of her brother that she has not seen before. After the war, when life for her, and her acquaintances, and those who Toby knew has changed forever, she seeks answers as to what happened to Toby during the War.
Although the writing of this book was skilled and the narrative flowed, I never really found myself engaging fully with the characters. I found them all a bit one-dimensional, and the major incident at the beginning of the book never really rang with any degree of conviction for me. Although I read the book to find out what happened in the end, I never found myself empathising with the characters, nor really caring about what they may have been through. Strong on the outlines of a good plot, the novel failed for me because of weak characterisation and lack of clear direction. The book starts out as the story of Elinor, then Toby, then drifts from character to character without really ever giving them flesh and bones. A pity.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 27 October 2013
I read this because I had to for my reading group. I don't know why but I just couldn't engage with any of the characters and for the life of me I don't understand what the relevance of the implied intimacy between Elinor and Toby has to the plot. But everyone else loved it so I have given it 3 stars, not least because it was an easy read and some parts were interesting for example the hospital scenes.
As a long-standing fan of Pat Barker, I looked forward to this, her latest novel. It does not disappoint. There is the same wonderfully lucid, almost limpid prose, which so elegantly carries her earlier fiction. The opening is particularly powerful and perhaps the remainder of the book never quite lives up to the expectations here created. As ever the characters are given solid reality and the dialogue seldom if at all creates a false note. However, although they are all convincing products of their social, historical worlds and certainly illuminate the times they lived in and through with conviction, their very typicality and ordinariness militates against any real depth of engagement with them as individuals. No doubt this helps to prevent distraction from the consequences of their different but always painful experiences of the war. So to a degree, anyway, I feel that PB sacrifices character to historical authenticity and I'm not entirely convinced that the Toby/Elinor relationship transcends this. Nonetheless, the book has a sincerity and grace that does a great deal to compensate for any psychological shortcomings.
on 6 March 2015
Cover 4/5 Nice match for the contents
Having read the Regeneration trilogy I was not sure about reading this book thinking it might be a re run. In some ways it is and I suppose if one has a successful formula of clothing a true skeleton with a fictional flesh it is worth doing. The factual background was interesting.
*Engrossing and interesting - Yes the mix of fact and fiction works well.
*Enjoyment and entertainment - Difficult to say this about a book with such a tortured character mix and a WW1 background.
*Emotional - In the end I felt sad for both Elinor and Kit. When I got to the punch line I thought what a waste. In the Regeneration Trilogy and this book I felt close to the characters struggling with life, families and war.
*Educational - The whole world of the Slade and anatomy school.
*Ease of reading - Not a quick read but from my perspective well written. As one review on the cover says impressive. The scenes in the house next to the East Coast beach memorable.
May read again
Alexander of the Allrighters and Ywnwab!
on 27 August 2015
The second book in Pat Barker’s new trilogy is set in 1917, when young artist Elinor Brooke learns her brother Toby is listed as missing, presumed dead. We follow her attempts to uncover the truth of his death, so I expected this book would reveal the true impact of the war on the lives of everyone.
What I didn’t expect was for Pat Barker to address one of the last ‘taboo’ subjects rarely explored by other authors – with such gripping effect. The same characters so wonderfully developed in Life Class, suffer sometimes physical and emotional trauma, made all the more shocking by our knowledge of their previous lives.
I particularly liked the evocative glimpses of live at the front line, seen through flashbacks. Once again, Pat Barker shows her skill with passages from Elinor’s diary which conceal as much as they reveal, leaving the reader to form their own theories.
Toby’s Room is also a moving tribute to the memory of those who survived the horrors of war and continued fighting, often against the odds, to recover their humanity.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 8 March 2013
This book was a gift from my aunt (somewhat disturbing if she knew the theme) who had heard great things about it, for that, I do thank her, but for any potential purchaser, I recommend some caution. I've never read Barker before, her style is truly poetic and beautiful in places, her use of imagery and clever metaphors does make you smile in admiration in places. It reads really easily, and as they say easy reading is hard writing, so perhaps I will look to some of her other work where the plot is stronger.
The main problem is that it is frankly a rather boring story, the only reason I read it to the end was because I wanted to know the answer that was the entire driving force behind the book, and really, its not worth the wait. If this was made into a film it would be frightfully tedious. The characters are believable, and I do love WWI era settings, but there is nothing substantial or interesting in this book, and with so many amazing alternatives to read, its hard to justify spending time with this. The book also relies on implied sexual scenes or tension to keep you turning the page, well, at least I thought so, but, aside from the shocking and captivating opening, the book descends into a world of disappointing mediocrity.
Its worth a read if you see it before you in a waiting room, maybe the huge opening hook will compel you to finish the book, but otherwise, its a rather boring and slow story. However, Barker's poetic style hinted at her genius and I would like to read more, maybe someone can recommend her best work to me? Hope this helped!
on 5 March 2013
I had never heard of Pat Barker before, and read this as a monthly book group read.
It is a sad story about a brother an sister, who share a very dark secret, and is set just before the First World War. The family they come from is slightly dysfunctional, but fairly well to do, and Elinor has a tempestuous relationship with her mother. Because of this she trusts her brother intimately. WW1 starts and Toby is called up, Elinaor is at art school, and sees little of her brother now. He sings up, and is joined by a fellow art student.
Towards the end of the war, the family receive the standard message, that Toby is missing presumed dead. It turn out that one of Elinors fellow students was there when he died, and she is desperate to find out what happened. After some persuasion she does, and can draw a line under his life.
It is a melancholy story, and I found it very readable.
16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on 7 February 2013
It's 1912 and Elinor is a student at the Slade, her older brother Toby is a medical student, also in London. Toby has a still born twin, now resident in a jar in a museum, possibly in Edinburgh. At home in the countryside, Toby somewhat ravages Elinor and, that night, she sneaks into his bedroom and they play grown up version of "Doctors and Artists" (one assumes). Some weeks later, sexual tension re-emerges as Eleanor takes a dissection class and has to nurse Toby through a fever. Elinor invents a beau, `Kit' (who is a real person) to please her anodyne `other' sibling Rachel and mother but attains quite the opposite end, exiting their ardour. She glimpses a dashing young man waiting outside her rakish supervisor's office. Her rakish supervisor, Tonks, it will transpire, is a real historical figure. You can see his actual work somewhere or other.
War comes. Even artistic women are forced to fiddle around with the bodies and body parts of young men. Toby goes MIA, the dashing young man (we assume) is dragged back to Blighty on a stretcher and mysterious characters know as VB and Mrs Woolf are not unashamed to loom large in Elinor's post-Slade diary, much as anticipated.
It's pretty obvious that almost everyone is gay, bisexual or impotent, and the degree to which sexual desire was misunderstood, suppressed or ignored combined with various metaphors of courage and cowardice are cobbled together into a `theme'.
I am no expert on Pat Barker, but this book, in terms of its words and sentences, is far, far too middle-brow. I feel I am in a room of `idiots', being lectured to by a great mind, determined to get her point across. She seems to lack confidence in her audience and either teaches or preaches: presenting, explaining, re-explaining, simplifying. It's incredibly dull for those of us who got it the first time. I want to call the writing `unremarkable' and not intend it as a slight. There is never anything really good going on, and only occasionally something clunky. It's coq au vin for the soul: something that would have been exciting to a very specific demographic, 35 years ago.
I'm rather afraid that we already have a great body of literature - a canon even - about (homo)sexual awakening, family oppression, hypocrisy and the Bloomsbury Set and their minor hangers on before, during and after The Great War and much of that body is `excellent', including Barker's own contributions.
Every epoch requires a variety of chroniclers, pitching their cases at an assortment of audiences with a range of expectancies in terms of the longevity of the work. This is a middle writer, writing to the middle of experience, intelligence and interest. I expect the work will live for a moderate time.
I don't want to be obvious about this but with a writer of Barker's stature there only two meaningful kinds of reader: fans and initiates. All of the fans will be disappointed to some extent, because TOBY'S ROOM is well below par. Few of the initiates will become fans for much the same reason.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 31 March 2013
This novel did not work for me. The abortive sexual encounters of the early chapters were frustrating in that the writing seemed to lack the writer's usual subtlety and indirectness in treating relationships, and there were some limp cliches and tropes. Around the middle things were about to pick up, with the characters and the drama taking on some life around Tonks and his offer to Elinor. The denouement was frankly a let-down: improbable, contrived and lacking in conviction. Some good characters, though the best don't get the chance to develop satisfyingly. Barker's themes of damage, war and the effects of war interestingly framed in the dilemmas of artists, sometimes are on the point of taking off but somehow, for this reader, the whole does not hang together.