Let me say from the start that I am a huge Pat Barker fan. I believe her Regeneration trilogy to be one of the finest collections of novels written about war and its aftermath. My devotion and admiration for them is comparable to how I feel about Margaret Laurence’s Manawaka cycle. For me, there is no higher praise.
It’s no surprise then that I was delighted to see that Barker has a new book coming out in October. I asked for and received an advance reader’s copy from the publisher. Toby’s Room is a slim volume that contains much to recommend it. In fact, I can see reading this book multiple times gaining new insights on each reading.
The story takes place during and shortly after the end of World War I (seemingly Barker’s favorite topic). The titular character is Toby Brooke, a medical student who serves as a doctor on the front lines in France following his training at Slade School of Art in London. (Barker’s previous novel, Life Class, is also set at the Slade with overlapping characters. Another trilogy in the making?)
Toby’s relationships are the center of the book. Toby, his sister, Elinor, and her friends, Kit Neville and Paul Tarrant, all participate in the brand new world of walking wounded left by the war. As an art student, Elinor studies the human body through dissection before the war and reconstruction of facial injuries afterward. Barker is graphic about the damage done physically and emotionally to the service men. Her ability to convey the change that war wrecks on individuals and to society as whole is compellingly empathetic, never preachy.
As an example, here is a passage about Paul relating his own grief over the loss of his mother to the grief Elinor struggles with throughout most of the book.
It seemed, looking back, that he’d grown around the loss, that it had become part of him, as trees will sometimes incorporate an obstruction, so they end up living, but deformed.
I'd recommend reading Life Class now and Toby's Room as soon as it is available in October.