Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Toby's Room by Pat Barker

 review by Maryom

"Pat Barker returns to the First World War in Toby's Room, a dark, compelling novel of human desire, wartime horror and the power of friendship.
When Toby is reported 'Missing, Believed Killed', another secret casts a lengthening shadow over Elinor's world: how exactly did Toby die - and why? Elinor determines to uncover the truth. Only then can she finally close the door to Toby's room. Moving from the Slade School of Art to Queen Mary's Hospital, where surgery and art intersect in the rebuilding of the shattered faces of the wounded, Toby's Room is a riveting drama of identity, damage, intimacy and loss. Toby's Room is Pat Barker's most powerful novel yet."

When this first arrived with us it was read and reviewed by The Mole  but I'd always intended reading it myself. With other -unreviewed books piling up, it took a while for me to get round to it - and when I did I wasn't overly impressed so I didn't put up my own thoughts. Then, earlier this week, I read a review of it on  Beauty Is  A Sleeping Cat blog as part of this year's Literature and War Readalong, so I've decided to chip in with my bit after all.

Elinor and her brother Toby are closer than normal siblings; a dangerous closeness that leads to incest and guilt which shadows Elinor's life afterwards. Via art school and medical training, the story moves forward to WW1 and Toby's death. The details of it aren't made public and Elinor is determined to find out what precisely happened. Meanwhile, she's accepted a position drawing and documenting the surgery involved in facial reconstruction which brings her into contact with mutual friends who might hold the key to Toby's death.

Despite all the praise lavished on it, this wasn't a book that grabbed me at all. I couldn't really grasp where the story was going; first it seemed to head one way, then move off at a tangent.  Was it meant to be a story of family secrets or artistic development or the horrors of war? Perhaps this randomness is more like 'real' life than fiction - but it failed to capture me because of it.
A lot of the characters also fell flat, seeming rather two-dimensional and hollow. Elinor particularly, though torn between closeness and repulsion for Toby, mainly came over as cold and unfeeling, and I just didn't care what happened to her. In checking links etc for this review I've discovered that several of the main characters, Elinor, Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville, appeared in a previous book by Pat Barker, Life Class set at the Slade School of Art and I wonder if not having read that has made a difference to my reading of Toby's Room.
I didn't think there was too much of a mystery about what happened to Toby - maybe there was for Elinor but not for me, picking up the clues as I read along.
All in all, it just left me rather unmoved and uncaring.

Maryom's review - 3 stars
Publisher - Penguin

Genre - adult, WW1


  1. Thanks for the review and the link Maryom.
    We did feel the same about this. Everyone who chimed in on my blog did actually with the exception of CarolineD and she's read Life Class first, so maybe we would have cared more. It's possible, still, I didn't like Elinor, didn't think there was much of a story and what little there was based on the incest and Toby's death. Pat Barker can do much better than this.

    1. You've the advantage over me there as I haven't read anything else by Pat Barker but have heard good things -particularly about Regeneration. Should I risk reading it?