Making sense of madness

This is my review of Toby’s Room by Pat Barker.

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.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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