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Toby's Room
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122 of 125 people found the following review helpful
TOP 50 REVIEWERon 13 August 2012
Pat Barker's latest novel revisits the First World War and re-introduces the reader to some of the characters from her previous book: Life Class where we first met fictional artists from the Slade School of Fine Art: Paul Tarrant, Kit Neville and Elinor Brooke and the renowned and real life, Henry Tonks, a qualified surgeon and professor of drawing at the Slade. Although not strictly a sequel to 'Life Class', in this new novel we meet again the artist Elinor who, as a pacifist, eschews everything to do with war. She and her brother, Toby, are part of a very conventional family who keep things hidden from one another and from whom secrets must be kept, and Elinor and Toby have a very particular secret that must remain hidden. When Elinor receives notification that Toby, who has gone off to war as a Medical Officer, is 'Missing, Believed Killed' she finds it very difficult to accept that he is dead and she struggles to come to terms with the fact that she will never see him again. But Toby's death was not a straightforward ending on the battlefield, there is yet more mystery and secrecy surrounding his demise and Elinor needs to find the truth before she can accept his death and begin the grieving process.

There are some surprising revelations in this story which I have no wish to spoil for prospective readers, so I shall be careful here - to help her piece together Toby's last days and hours, Elinor enlists the help of Paul Tarrant and also their friend, Kit Neville, who has been tragically and severely facially disfigured at the front and is being treated at Queen Mary's Hospital in Sidcup. This part of the novel is particularly interesting, as it is at Queen Mary's that Henry Tonks works with Dr. Harry Gillies and his team as they develop pioneering approaches to reconstructing facial injuries sustained by soldiers fighting at the front, and Pat Barker's writing of this is detailed, sensitive and very involving. As we read through the story we discover that although those around Toby think they knew him, there were parts of his life that they knew nothing about at all. Toby's hidden life and of how he meets his death is finally revealed to the reader in a rather dramatic and crucial scene - but I shall leave the detail for prospective readers to discover for themselves.

When I first read the title to this novel, it immediately made me think of Virginia Woolf's 'Jacob's Room' (which was inspired by Woolf's brother Thoby) and there is a similarity in that with Jacob and with Toby we mostly get to know them through the minds of the other characters in the story; but the content of this novel and Pat Barker's writing style is quite different to Virginia Woolf's. I enjoyed Barker's last novel which, like 'Toby's Room', examines the role of art and artists in a time of conflict and I was very much looking forward to the arrival of this new book which does not disappoint. I find Pat Barker's writing direct, insightful and perceptively observed and this novel, like many of her books, has a strong narrative drive; I read this story in one sitting and found it a very compelling and thought-provoking read about art and identity, love and loyalty, intolerance and discrimination and about the brutal and far-reaching consequences of war.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 12 April 2013
Pat Barker highlights the horrific reality of war but also, and more importantly as it is often neglected, the trauma of the mutilated and damaged soldiers who return and are patched up to the best of the ability of medical experts. However, I could not warm at all to the central character Elinor Brooke, a talented young artist at The Slade School of Art in London; she comes across as totally self-centred and completely lacking in empathy - apart from her obsessive quest to discover what happened to her brother, the eponymous Toby, who has been reported missing in combat.

This novel does get across the awful limbo in which the relatives of those soldiers missing presumed dead are trapped; sometimes waiting forever for closure.

My problem with Toby's Room is I found it really difficult to care about the characters with the possible exception of Kit Neville, who for me is far and away the most interesting and human person in the book.

It was interesting to read of the real-life character Professor Tonks, a noted surgeon and artist, who taught at the Slade School at the time. Tonks played his part in the reconstructive surgery carried out by doctors on soldiers returning from the front with hugely disfiguring facial wounds. He painted portraits of the victims' facial injuries and these portraits were, unsurprisingly, shocking. Pat Barker has interweaved real-life characters throughout other novels and it is something she does very well.

I would encourage others to read this book as it has a lot to offer but, failing to evoke in the reader, any empathy towards most of the main characters is, in my opinion, where Pat Barker falls short. Still I did like the bitter curmudgeon Kit Neville!
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42 of 45 people found the following review helpful
It is 1912, and Elinor Brooke is studying art at the Slade School of Art in London under the tutorage of Henry Tonks. There she befriends fellow art student Kit Neville, rather a difficult person, and somewhat of a ladies' man. Elinor's mother and sister are against her independence and her pursuing her studies. Toby, Elinor's brother and her closest friend, is supportive of her endeavours.

Then the story moves forward to 1917, with Britain at war, and the men away on the battlefields in France. Toby uses his medical experience to help the wounded there. News comes through to the Brooke family that Toby is missing.

Elinor is anxious to seek out the truth about her brother Toby's death during the war; 'She knew so little. What did 'Missing, Believed Killed' actually mean?' Despite writing several times to Kit in the hope of discovering more information as to how exactly Toby died, she receives no reply.

Kit Neville then returns from France. Through him the author conveys how the confusing memories and images of war can haunt the mind: 'All sorts of shadowy figures crossed the suburbs of Neville's mind, or crept out of the darkness and pressed in on him.'

Neville's face has been destroyed in the war, and Pat Barker writes with frank realism about the disfigured appearances of the men being treated for facial injuries sustained in battle. She describes what is necessary for us to comprehend the suffering of these men, and the work and techniques of Harold Gillies, the pioneering plastic surgeon at Queen Mary's Hospital in Sidcup, and she depicts the difficulty and pain endured by Neville trying to somehow come to terms with himself as he is now.

Kit is still reluctant to reveal anything more to Elinor about Toby's death, so Elinor turns to her former love Paul Tarrant, another art student, and asks for his help speaking to Kit. She seeks some form of closure regarding Toby, some way to even begin to move on from his death, having been such a key part of her life, and sharing a dark secret.

The author illustrates how art becomes linked with the surgery being undertaken to reconstruct the damaged faces of the soldiers. A record is being created of those wounded, with Elinor becoming involved in these portraits. I felt moved by the immense courage of the soldiers, and feel that the author writes both authoritatively and compassionately about the mental and physical scars of war.

The inclusion of real people from this period in history, Henry Tonks and Harold Gillies, adds weight to the authenticity of the story's backdrop, and caused me to read more about them and their work after finishing the novel.

I was struck at times by the beauty and aptness of the prose; the following passage in particular stood out for me, when relating how Paul views the countryside and weather back home, his impressions all bear the stamp of the war:

'Everything he saw, everything he felt, seemed to be filtered through his memories of the front line, as if a think wash had been laid over his perceptions of this scene. Columns of sleety rain marched across the fields while, in the distance, grey clouds massed for another attack.'

I felt for Paul as he seeks to find a place for himself in Elinor's heart, wondering if this is a lost cause.

A fascinating, intelligent and beautifully written historical portrait of people and relationships, war and destruction, love and loss, under the shadow and impact of the First World War.

In Toby's Room, the author revisits characters that featured in her earlier novel Life Class, though I would add that a reading of that is not necessary to understand and enjoy this novel.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 15 June 2013
If you liked Regeneration, the chances are you will enjoy Toby's Room. Whilst quite different in focus, this novel deals with similar central themes; loss, sexuality, and the physical and psychological consequences of a war that we still fail to comprehend today. And, of course, Barker's writing style never fails to engage and to impress.
The research and understanding that underlines this novel is once again outstanding, particularly in regards to facial reconstruction, akin to that of The Officer's Ward by Marc Dugain. And I found the subplot of Elinor's studies of the human body an interesting complement to the central plot. Of course not the first novel to explore the relationship between war and art, Toby's Room looks at the aesthetics of war and of the human form.
However, if you're looking for a novel which concerns itself wholly with life at the front or with the soldier's plight then this perhaps is not for you. Of course this backdrop is ever present, as we begin to unfold the mystery of Toby's fate. But Toby's Room immerses itself in those characters back in England; the women left behind, and the injured. Their search for purpose, for forgiveness, and for truth.
I found this a compelling and moving read, and a refreshing perspective on a much-told story of a missing soldier. If you love WW1 fiction, you'll love Toby's Room.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
This book really intrigued me, and although it was originally the cover that grabbed my attention at first, the blurb had me captivated. This story revolves around Toby and Elinor, brother and sister, who share many secrets together, including ones that must remain hidden. When Toby is reported `missing, believed killed' in war, Elinor feels as though there are more secrets...What happened to Toby? Enlisting the help of Paul, Elinor is determined to find out the truth about Toby....

I really enjoyed this story. I've always been a fan of war-related stories. Ever since I was young, my dad has always taken me to war museums, and in the last five years we've visited war museums, beaches and memorials in France together, so from an early age I've always taken an interest in it.

I can't say too much about the story because otherwise I will give away important plot points, but it is a gripping and emotional story. Throughout there are many surprises revealed as the reader goes on a journey of discovery with Elinor, and so as you read the story things begin to come together.

Pat Barker has brilliantly and expertly written a story detailing not only the physical effects of war but also the mental effects. The descriptions are gripping to read, and Pat conveys the devastating effects that war has on everyone.

Toby's room is a novel that any historical fans or readers looking for war books will be interested in. Pat Barker explores war and destruction, relationships, love and loss in this complex story.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 24 April 2013
Pat Barker wrote the best ever - and that's from a very wide field- novel about the 1st World War, in 'Regeneration', so the other, later, engagements with the subject are invariably slightly disappointing. 'Toby's Room' is one of these. Without the comparison, though, it's an extraordinarily knowledgable, well crafted and nuanced text. It deals with the emotional damage and interpersonal ruptures that the war has bought about, directly and indirectly and how 'damaged' people manage the war. She writes, as always, utterly convincing characters: flawed, unreliable as narrators, both sympathetic and unlikable: - the contradictions that make up whole identities. 'Toby' is the ghost in the book and the ghost shadow in his sister's paintings , only understood through the eyes of others who try to piece together his war time biography. The world of contemporary paining, from pre-war student life at the Slade, to art in war time, is the context : - returned to after her 2007 novel 'Life Class' set out some of the themes and many of the characters revisited here. Art in the service of, and impacted on, by the war is the language through which the characters connect. It's a good novel: it allows spaces for the reader to think, plays no tricks -though the introduction of the 'real' Bloomsbury set has a dissonance I think - and shields us from nothing: Pat Barker in every way. It's very good- well worth reading, but don't expect Rivers and Prior.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 18 August 2013
Surely Pat Barker's specialist subject, the painful trauma of the effect of war - Toby's Room has a smaller scope than her Regeneration trilogy, but is nontheless powerfully affecting. Shifting between past and present, it traces the journey of Elinor, seeking clues and a solution to her brother's unresolved history. Although the novel seems a little quiet, what is striking on reading again is that even the most apparently straightforward scene is infused with tension and pain. The sense and tone of the book lives with you much longer than the turn of the final page.
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on 30 July 2015
I loved it,pat Barker writes with knowledge,understanding and deep compassion.The story revolves around Elinor and Toby 's secret relationship.I thought the incestuous details was handled with sensitivity and care.just enough information was given to leave the reader in no doubt what was happening.Lots of the reviews talked about the likeability of the characters but I feel strongly they were a product of their time.Dealing with war and the complexity. of it,incestuous relationship and adult relationships which the main characters are drawen into.I feel Elinor is a product of the changing rolls of woman at that time,sexual freedom compaired to Victorian society and being a working independent woman.Elinor's relationship with both parents is complex especially her mother who favours her elder sister over her due to the fact she has done everything that's expected of her,got married and had children and seems an alie for the mother when her relationship with there husband is so fractious and seperate.Elinor also seems jealous of the feelings Toby has to protect his mother from anything bad.
The two main male characters are so different in personalities despite going through war experiences and both suffering life changing injuries.one more recognisable then the other.The relationship between Neville and Toby has always been stained especially since the knew each other before the war.The fact that Neville has to do everything that Toby asks of him because he in charge annoys and angers Neville.I think that when Neville chatches Toby and the stable lad together he loses his respect and his abiliy to make judgements.Neville immediately stats that the boy was probably bullied into what he was doing and couldn't say no.Neville is strongly against homosexuality and takes the moral high ground when his own behaviour towards females is hardly great.Toby's own sexuality is all mixed up in his relationship with his sister Elinor and his gay relationships with men.
Weather you belive that Toby killed himself or Neville is keeping his part in the events secret is left up to the reader to judge.A great story a mixture of fiction and historical events come together in an fantastic book .
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on 21 October 2013
Desperate to break away from the shackles of her repressive [and, indeed, repressed] family and establish herself as a thoroughly modern young lady, Elinor Brooke moved to London and enrolled at the Slade School of Art. Gleeful to be living on her own and finally able to see progress in her art, Elinor is nevertheless still occasionally drawn back to the family home. It's a home full of secrets, perhaps not always particularly earth-shattering ones, where much is left unsaid and Elinor is really only able to tolerate the atmosphere there due to the presence of her brother Toby. Then, during an otherwise unexceptional weekend in 1912, Elinor and Toby become embroiled in a secret of their own, a secret that will echo about their lives for years to come.

A secret so powerful in fact that it still has a bearing when the story of Toby's Room moves on to the battlefields of France and wartime London in 1917. The real Toby is gone from Elinor's life now. He was reported as `Missing, Believed Killed' while serving as an officer in France but, since no body was actually found, Elinor can't quite let the spirit of Toby go. She is convinced that there is more to Toby's death than can be conveyed in the official cable and so she enlists the help of ex-love and fellow artist Paul Tarrant in uncovering the truth. As it happens, there is one person who might know what happened to Toby - Elinor's fellow Slade student and one time toast of the London art scene Kit Neville was in the foxhole with Toby when he met his fate.

Although almost a follow-up to Life Class, Pat Barker's Toby's Room is not a direct sequel and so it is not necessary to have read the earlier novel in order to enjoy and understand the latter. However, Toby's Room does revisit the Slade School and reintroduce Elinor Brooke, Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville and so provides a welcome update on well-established characters. Elinor is perhaps a little more infuriating in Toby's Room, she's certainly quite exceptionally selfish and single-minded, but she does remain sympathetic. Kit Neville is still as acerbic as ever but his experiences in the Great War have changed him. Those who knew him before he was injured will recognise that his confidence is shaken even if his bravado would fool many. Paul Tarrant has arguably changed the least, perhaps because he was much more of an `everyman' than the others and was less prone to radical, impassioned if misguided, outbursts.

All three of these artists are forced to confront great change during Toby's Room. Tarrant and Neville are both severely injured during combat and are left with physical ailments likely to plague them for the rest of their lives. Of course, in Tarrant's case his injury can be largely hidden and so perhaps put behind him more easily. Neville on the other hand has suffered extreme facial disfigurement than even the well-intentioned and skilled surgeons of the time are unable to correct. He faces a lifetime of surgeries to reach imperfect results and the option of wearing masks as the best means of avoiding notice and eliciting the shock/horror of others. Elinor's injury is more subtle than those of her friends. The death of Toby leaves her with a deep psychological trauma, not least because she is left with no hope of answers to questions that have haunted her since 1912.

The majority of Barker's main characters are extremely well drawn and, even when their actions are reprehensible, they are still understandable. The only character who remains somehow unclear is Toby himself, perhaps because he is always viewed and evaluated through the eyes of the others. Toby's motivation, most obviously in relation to the secret he shares with his sister, is never really established. Maybe Toby doesn't really understand things himself and so no one else can hope to. However he is to be judged initially, Toby's eventual outcome is certainly tragic.

As the Regeneration trilogy has shown, Pat Barker is second to none when it comes to describing the truth and horror of the First World War and so the second section of Toby's Room is particularly effecting. The battle scenes and the searching that Toby and Kit Neville must do for survivors/corpses are harrowing as is the despair that can be seen in all of the soldiers. Also deeply moving is Barker's portrayal of the after-effects of the war, of the effect that the conflict has both physically and mentally on those involves as well as those left behind. Arguably the strongest message of the book is Barker's musings on how society and individuals should react to the horrific physical injuries suffered by soldiers and of the lasting traumas that such injuries will cause.

Toby's Room isn't always an easy read, there is certainly plenty of darkness and confusion, but it is still an excellent book. Pat Barker is great at capturing how people really feel, both during momentous moments in history and also in the course of day-to-day lives, and so it is easy to become emotionally invested in her characters. The story is exciting in quite an understated way as, while there is of course plenty of action to be found in Kit Neville's recollections of his time at the Front, most of Toby's Room is about the impact that life has on the characters. The story of Elinor, Toby, Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville and of the relationships between them all makes compelling reading. Toby's Room is an excellent novel, better than Life Class, and right up there with the Regeneration trilogy.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 7 October 2012
Pat Barker's new WW1 novel, "Toby's Room", is a book of secrets. Some are so nuanced that you don't realise they are secrets - or even facts - til they're exposed. That's what a good writer - and Pat Barker is a remarkable one - does to advance both the storyline and the characters' lives.

"Toby's Room" begins in 1912 and ends in 1917. The first part - the shorter part - introduces the reader to the Brooke family - parents who are estranged both physically and emotionally. Three children, Rachel is the oldest and is married, and the two younger, Toby and Elinor are, respectively, a medical student and an art student, and live in London. Elinor Brooke was featured in an earlier Barker book - "Life Class" - which I haven't read, along with two other main characters in this book, Kit Neville and Paul Tarrant. The new book appears to be a sequel of sorts, though when I read the description of "Life Class", both seem to present the same WW1 battle scenes. Maybe like Jane Gardam's tandem duo, "Old Filth" and "The Man with the Wooden Hat", the same characters appear in both Barker's books, telling the story from different angles.

Toby Brooke - the medical student in 1912 - is the center of that part of the story. Elinor and Toby were raised almost as twins and stay extremely close as they age. She lives near him in London while a student at the real Slade School of Fine Art, but certain feelings intrude that are destructive to both. By 1917, Toby, Kit, and Paul are off to France to fight. Toby is a front-line doctor and the other two are in auxiliary battle roles.

Toby disappears on the battlefield - literally blown up with no remains - and the Brooke family is devastated. Elinor realises she must know what happened to Toby in the days leading up to his death. Knowing that Kit Neville had served with Toby, she tracks him down in an English hospital for the facially wounded. At the hospital, she meets her old teacher from Slade - Henry Tonks - by then a noted illustrator of the work of Dr Harold Gillies. Gillies, like Tonks, was a real doctor, and is known as the "father of plastic surgery". Elinor Brooke goes to work with Tonks and Gillies as a medical illustrator.

And then secrets start coming out. Secrets long hidden from both within the Brooke family and in their relationships with others outside it. Most are devastating, but learning them can help Elinor and her friends move on with their lives, knowing that what happened on the battlefield have impacted them so profoundly.

Pat Barker is a master writer. Her combining real and fictional characters makes this book even more interesting than it might have been had she simply been writing fiction. In a way, this book can be compared to John Boyle's "The Absolutist" in tone and style.
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