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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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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.
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on 19 October 2012
Pat Barker's ability to engage the reader from the first page never ceases to amaze me. If you love her work then you'll love this book. But even if this is your first Barker, you won't be at sea. Some characters crossover from previous books and some get a passing mention from her other works, but this is not a sequel in the sense that you need to have read Life Class in order to get this one. Everything you'd expect from a Booker Prize-winning author.

A definite page-turner but don't read the sad parts late at night on your own else you might get depressed!
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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 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.
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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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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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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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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 30 January 2016
Although Toby’s Room may be read as a “stand-alone” novel, it is part of a trilogy best read in order, starting with “Life Class” which is based on real-life young artists studying at the Slade under the fearsome Professor Tonks just before the outbreak of World War One.

Pat Barker’s books seem to be triggered by specific real people and actual events, in this case the death of Virginia Woolf’s brother Thoby, prompting her novel “Jacob’s Room” and also by the death of Edward Brittain, brother of Vera, who is believed to have committed suicide by way of putting himself in danger at the Front, rather than face the disgrace of court-martial and prison.

A central character is the prickly and unconventional art student Elinor Brooke, who is faced with the disturbing realisation that her deep bond with her brother Toby is too close. Before there is time to resolve this issue, she learns that he is missing, presumed dead in the war. Knowing that brilliant but boorish artist Kit Neville was serving in Toby’s company so is most likely to know the truth about what occurred, she enlists the aid of Paul Tarrant, another artist and former lover, to extract the information from the reluctant Kit, even though he is undergoing painful surgery to restore his damaged nose.

This is a cue for the author to explore another aspect of wartime social history, the involvement of Tonks in recording the hideous wounds caused by shells and the development of plastic surgery. I had no idea that injured soldiers undergoing nose surgery had to endure temporary tubes called “pedicles”, sometimes as many as three, making them resemble squids (a sick joke on Kit’s part?) nor that anaesthesia was so rudimentary that the tube carrying the gas often got in the surgeon’s way, with the danger of making the operating staff themselves woozy if it was removed without due care.

Barker’s vivid prose, punctuated with original metaphors often veers into poetry as she describes Zeppelins over Hampstead Heath and coastal cottages at the mercy of tides and shingle in a storm. There are some strong scenes with lively dialogues, mostly involving Kit who is one of the most flesh-and-blood, fully developed characters: Kit wearing a Rupert Brooke mask on an outing to the Café Royal with Paul; Kit remembering his fraught relationship with medical officer Toby forcing him to take ludicrous risks to retrieve not only wounded men but corpses from no man's land; Kit finally describing Toby's last days to Paul, but these powerful passages which prove Pat Barker's talent are too few.

I wanted to admire this novel, but it was often too disjointed and lacking in focus to engage me. I could not understand why the author tells us in detail about Elinor’s dissection of a corpse (to learn more about anatomy for artistic reasons), but avoids describing Kit’s wound and how their first sight of it affected Paul and Elinor. Why does Pat Barker include extracts of Elinor’s very contrived diaries, casually name-dropping visits to Virginia Woolf and Lady Ottoline Morrell without ever explaining her connection with them? Why is Toby so underdeveloped as a character? If he and Elinor are so close, why do they have such limited communication? Why are the most dramatic moments so often reported third hand after the event?

It could be that the author is deliberately disjointed and unfocused, because that is how real life often is, and she wants us to interpret the story for ourselves, but I think the book is weakened by the lack of a well-constructed plot and three-dimensional characters.
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on 29 December 2015
As the second book of a trilogy, this can be read also as a standalone novel. The Toby of the title is the brother art student Elinor Brooke, whose story is told in ‘Life Class’. This story starts further back in time with a secret shared by the siblings, something not hinted at in the first book. In fact this whole book is about secrets, things hidden for shame, war too horrible to talk about, fear and emotions to be ashamed of, and things simply not spoken. Society was very different then, pragmatism coloured everyday lives, people did what they had to and tried to forget the bad things.
Toby is reported ‘Missing, Believed Killed’, a parcel of his belongings is returned. Elinor believes the true story is being hidden and enlists fellow art student Paul Tarrant - who returned from Ypres injured and is now an official war artist – to help. She believes another war artist, Kit Neville, who served with Toby, must know the truth but refuses to say. Kit suffered a horrific face injury and is being treated at Queen Mary’s Hospital in Sidcup. Visiting Kit there they find not only Kit but Henry Tonks, their intimidating professor at the Slade School of Art.
The facial reconstructions at Sidcup are well documented, not least by the medical drawings of patients by Tonks and his team. Once again, Barker uses a true story and seamlessly inserts her fictional characters. And yet again, Barker combines a study of individuals at war while considering the role of art in conflict. As official war artists, Kit and Paul struggle with the limitations they are given, the portrayal of reality is forbidden. As I read every page of this book, the image which stayed in my mind was Paul Nash’s ‘We Are Making a New World’.
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