Pat Barker: Toby’s Room (2012) Literature and War Readalong April 2014

Toby's Room

I’ve been procrastinating all morning. Every time I sat down to write this review I had something very urgent to do. Read the afterword of Fire and Hemlock, read the news on the Ukraine, get a cup of tea, look for cat number 2, read more news on the Ukraine, read the guardian review of Toby’s Room, urgently hunt for a book voucher, read the NY Times review of Toby’s Room, call my best friend in Odessa. I think you get the drift. Anything but writing the review.

Why?  Because I’m far from happy about this book and because I’m going to say what the critics didn’t say: it’s a mixed bag and despite a lot of good elements – mainly the choice of topic – it’s pretty much a failure or – even worse – a dishonest attempt. Still, it would be a great book club pick, as its strengths are topics and characters. That’s why I think it was a good choice for our readalong and if a few people read it, the discussion should be interesting.

So what’s Toby’s Room about? Thanks to the Guardian review, I was made aware that the title is an allusion to Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, the novel which she wrote after her brother Thoby died in WWI. It’s not surprising then that Virginia Woolf has a cameo appearance in Toby’s Room. I’ve read Jacob’s Room too long ago to make the connection, but I’m tempted to revisit it.

Elinor and her brother Toby are close, too close, one could say. One afternoon, in 1914 they spend a night together. This is deeply traumatizing for Elinor, although she’s not a victim in the whole encounter. Later when they are both in London, Elinor studying to become a painter, Toby to become a doctor, their relationship is strained.

In 1917 Toby’s reported “Missing, believed Killed”, which affects Elinor deeply. Until that day she tried to avoid thinking of the war but the death of her brother and the uncertainty of the circumstances, propel her right into it.

When Elinor finds a letter her brother wrote shortly before his death, mentioning Kit Neville, a famous painter, knows what happened to him, she barges in on Neville who’s at a hospital for soldiers with facial wounds. She disregards his state and unease and tries to force him to confess what happened. To no avail.

The second part of the novel sees Elinor join Tonks, her former teacher. Tonks is a painter and surgeon who helped a great deal in giving back some sort of face to those who had been severely disfigured. Part of his and Elinor’s work consists in drawing the wounded men before, during and after surgery. The gallery of this drawings can be visited online here (I managed to look at two).

Neville doesn’t confess to Elinor, he will confess to the far more sympathetic Paul, Elinor’s lover, whose story is told in Barker’s Life Class.

Pat Barker is famous for blending fact and fiction, for introducing us to important topics – I shy away from calling facial reconstruction “fascinating” as she herself does in her afterword – and for addressing the complexity of WWI. And she’s a very good plotter. The book reads like crime fiction. From the very beginning we are drawn along, running like donkeys after a carrot, to find out “Whatever happened to Toby?” I’m grateful for Pat Barker’s plotting skills, it made for quick reading, but when the juicy carrot I’d been hoping for proved to be a shriveled scrap, I felt let down. I didn’t buy the end. It wasn’t believable for me, but very much in line with the sensationalist beginning.

My biggest problem however was that she felt she had to start with an incest. Why was that necessary? I can relate to someone’s attachment to their brother, I didn’t need an incest to understand that they were very close and that their relationship was far from uncomplicated. This leads me to another problem I had with the book – heavy-handed foreshadowing.

Before I move on to the good parts, let me just say that I found Elinor a off-putting character. Not only did I despise her for blocking out the war, but for being so insensitive. In a way, the novel wants to tell us, it’s that character trait that made her useful. If she’d been more emotional, more sensitive, she wouldn’t have been able to draw the atrocities she saw. I don’t think that is true. I think there are people capable of deep empathy who can still do work like that.

What I liked about this novel, besides its suspenseful readability, was the choice of topics. I’d never heard of Tonks before and I found it interesting how the novel showed that the painters had to document everything in great detail but that they knew it would never be shown publicly. Some of the other painters mentioned painting landscapes as a metaphor. The war can be shown metaphorically but not realistically.

Neville isn’t a sympathetic character either but he’s a great character nonetheless. His story illustrates how hard it was for people to handle seeing facial mutilations. It was so hard that they often ceased to think about the person who was “behind” the disfigurement. They seemed to have lost their humanity with their faces and thus the repulsive reactions of the people were only occasionally questioned.

The more I read, the more I was wondering whether the fact that these injured men were sent to hospitals outside of cities was not so much for their own good as for the good of the population. These parts were done admirably well in the novel and the juxtaposition with scenes in which Elinor learns how to become a better painter through anatomy lessons and dissecting a corpse is great as well.

As a whole however I would say that this novel with its shifting POVs and sensationalist beginning and ending, is a failure. But a very thought-provoking failure.

I’m curious to hear the thoughts of others. Did you think the incest was a good choice? And what about the many different POVs and Elinor’s diary?

Other reviews


Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Maryom (Our Book Reviews)

The Mole


Toby’s Room is the fourth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2014. The next book is the WWI novel  Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo. Discussion starts on Friday 30 May, 2014. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including the book blurbs can be found here.

49 thoughts on “Pat Barker: Toby’s Room (2012) Literature and War Readalong April 2014

  1. I read this a while ago and just found it a not very anything kind of book. I couldn’t really grasp where it was going at all – it seemed to run off at too many tangents. As you say Why include incest? It didn’t really add anything to the story – apart perhaps to muddle Elinor’s feelings for her brother.I didn’t think there was much of a mystery to Toby’s death though – maybe to Elinor but not to me. I’ve never reviewed this but I might put a few thoughts about it together now.

  2. I was disappointed in the book and did not think that Barker’s combination of elements worked very well. In Regeneration the mixture of real and fictional characters added great depth to the book and the feelings expressed. Here it was a distraction, especially in the case of VW and VB, with the almost-cutesy failure to identify them for readers not familiar with that circle. I too was put off by the incest and kept waiting for it to be germane to the story. In fact, the character of Toby was always less clear to me than almost anyone else’s. At first he seemed very controlling, then almost insanely self-sacrificing. The reason for Toby’s death was implied early on and did not surprise me, in fact, it was irritating that it was made into such a mystery. What did impress me were the metaphorical landscapes and the humanity of the destroyed faces.

    • I think you put it in different words but we felt the same.
      I was only misled because the end was banal and I really thought it would be something else. That was the surprise. I never believed she would use such artifice.
      The best parts are the metaphorical landscapes and the destroyed faces but they are drowned.
      I totally agree with your assessemtn of Regeneration – one of my favourite books. I think she should let go of WWI. She’s got nothing moe to say and – oh yes – VB and VW that was cutesy.
      I’m going to write a WWII novel and call it Gravity’s Downpour have TP appear and it will be a success, no matter what.

  3. Well now I have a different take on this book as I was completely caught up in it. I had been tipped off a couple of days ago that I needed to read Life class first so I don’t know if that made a difference. Reading the earlier novel made me care about what was going to happen to Paul Tarrant and following that thread pulled me through the second novel. I was convinced by the mix of real and fictional characters and didn’t have a problem with VB and VW – it struck me as the sort of shorthand someone in that circle (or on the edge of it like Elinor) would use in a diary. I didn’t find the ending banal as it seemed typical of how messy and messed up their lives must have been but at least Paul and Elinor had managed to find their way back to each other.
    Anyway I was pleased the readalong gave me the incentive to read it (and Life Class.
    I have reviewed them both over on Good Reads.

    • I’m glad to hear anther view. It could be that reading Life Class made a difference. Clearly Paul is the more interesting character.
      I didn’t find the ending as such shocking but the story that led to it. I didn’t picture Toby to be someone who’d force another. Sure, he kissed his sister but he wasn’t the one going to her at night.
      That part didn’t convince me at all.
      For me it would have been more logical if he’d been killed by Kit.
      You’re right about the Initials – in a diary – yes that’s realistic but I had a problem with the diary sections.
      I questioned a lot of her choices in this book – and I didn’t care for her at all.
      I’m glad I’ve read it as there were interesting elements.
      I’ll see if I can find your reviews – maybe I can link those here as well. I’m not a Goodreads user although I have an account.

  4. A thoughtful, interesting review, Caroline. I’ve never given much thought to facial disfigurement from WWI because it’s not been talked about much, but of course it must have happened to a great many soldiers. I find the part about the illustration interesting, but the rest of the book does not appeal. I would have been put off by the incest as well.

    • Thanks, Carole. I just think if you add an element like incest, you’d better have very good reasons for doing so. It seesm I wasn’t the only one questioning that decision.
      Parts of the book are truly good, but they are just historical fasct, that’s why I said I find almost dishonest.
      I think you can skip this. I’ve still to read Marc Dugain’s The Officer’s Chamber. I saw the movie and it was one of a few war movies that made me sick. It focuses on one man’s story and how he lost his face. The book is short and said to be outstanding but I need to find a very courageous moment to read it.

  5. Surprise – hated it. I’m pleased to see I’m not too far out on a limb here. If I was not committed to the readalong I would never have read beyond the first few chapters.
    1. I did not like any of the characters, especially Elinor. You would think that with the number of main characters, someone would be appealing. The Paul and Kit sections were hard to crawl through. They did not want to be with each other and I did not want to be with them.
    2. I did not find the writing anything special. The only thing I made note of was when Kit said to Paul: “You know the rules as well as I do – what happens out there stays out there… along with my f***ing nose.” I had never thought of no man’s land as being like Vegas, but I have to agree with the sentiment. I acknowledge that people talk ungrammatically, but Barker actually has one of the characters using the word “couldn’t’ve”!
    3. It’s nice to know that I am not the only one to find the incest stunt (that’s what I would call it) to be off-putting. I also found the reason for Toby’s death to be a clumsy attempt at a twist. There was no logical buildup to the stable incident and the idea that Toby was guilty of forcing himeslf on a subordinate was ridiculous. I agree that having Kit frag Toby would have made much more sense. Hell, I would have fragged him myself since I agree with Kit that risking lives to bring back dead bodies (much less identity disks) was insane.
    4. I have to admit I caught a second wind when Elinor went to the hospital to see Kit and we began to get some flashback that brought the war into the novel, but looking back it seems to have been an attempt to keep people like me reading.
    5. Next time you have a war novel starring PAINTERS, count me out LOL.
    6. Is it true that Rupert Brooke was a popular mask choice? Was there a reason why Elinor and Toby were Brookes? Just coincidence? Was Elinor having a lesbian relationship with Catherine? Inquiring minds want to know.
    7. The book had the makings of a smashing horror story. Just a little reworking.

    • We agree on this one. I was very disappointed in the writing. It’s raining often in this novel and every time the rain “peppers” something. That kind of lazy use of vocabulary even gets to me, being a non-native.
      There were a few other cases of lazy descriptions and many other instnaces which should have been edited.
      That ending! I’m mean – it was so far fetched. Fragging would have been understandable.
      I’m not entirely sure why she chose the name Brookes but Rupert Brookes was extremely popular and his death shattered the artist community. I looked it up and had to find out that he didn’t die a heroic death – the poor bloke succumbed to sepsis from an infected mosquito bite. Ironic. As for the mask – I guess that should be true as one thing Barker does well is research.
      I don’t think there was a lesbian relationship. It sounded more like a male fantasy. Paul seemed to be thinking about it.
      I think she should move away from WWI now. If she has to use stunts -like you say – like the incest – …

      • The reason I bring up the lesbian relationship was the passage where Paul comes to her home and Elinor does not answer the door for a while and when she does Barker makes a point of mentioning that she is buttoning her shirt and Katherine is staying with her.

        • I got that but I think this is one of the examples or her very shaky use of POV. I don’t think that anything happened between them, Barker just added another murky touch.

  6. I have not read this but have read Regeneration. After all this time I don’t remember much of it except that it had a strong beginning but then started floundering (or was it the second in the series?) Anyway I don’t think I’ll be reading this author though I quite want to read Jacob’s Room.

    • I can’t recommend this, especially not, if you didn’t even like Regeneration.
      I can’t remember Jacob’s Room. I’ve read all of Virginia Woolf’s novel, one after the other, and some stand out, while others don’t but I think it was one I did like.

  7. I loved this post Caroline. You really seem to have dog down into the fundamentals of this book.

    I tend to think that if a novel is thought provoking and has just a few other positive elements, then it is a success despite other flaws.

    I agree that someone does not need to be insensitive to portray such horrors. However, insensitivity seems to be one of several plausible ways that such an artist could tick.

    It is really difficult to evaluate the incest thing without reading the book. Without a doubt there are alternate ways to portray a very complicated relationship.

    • Thanks, Brian. I tried to read this one very closely because I think highly of her other books and because I wanted to like it. But I didn’t. It has its merits but I felt she didn’t have much of a story and felt compelled to add something like the incest.
      I found it quite telling that none of the newspaper reviews mentioned it. It’s the motor for the whole book, how can you n ot mention it unless you feel its off?
      It’s as if thye felt they had to laud the book because of its topic.

  8. Nice review, Caroline. Sorry to know that you didn’t like the book much. One of the things I love about your reviews is that even if one of your favourite authors does something that you disagree with, you don’t hesitate to state that. Poor Pat Barker, what was she thinking 🙂 It is sad that the author uses incest to show that the sister and brother were close. I am not a big fan of using controversial or violent scenes to make a point, when they are not required. I read a couple of books last year in which there were violent scenes (I liked one book and I didn’t like the other) and I was very disappointed with the concerned authors for that, because those scenes were not required. I hope your friend in Odessa is doing well – things must be quite uncertain there.

    Reading the afterword of ‘Fire and Hemlock’ is actually a pretty cool way of procrastinating 🙂 That is a wonderful afterword.

    • Thanks, Vishy.

      I can’t just write I like something even if i like the author. I tried to be fair though. It has interesting elements but as a novel … Not that great.
      My friend is doing OK, thanks but it’s not a great situation. there’s much more happening than what we hear. Luckily he should be back by next week. He travels there once a month for a few days. The Swiss embassy send him text messages saying he should leave the country asap.
      It’s a pretty great afterword but the bad things is – I haven’t finished the novel yet and now I’ve read some spoilers.

      • Sorry to know that things are so bad in Odessa. But glad to know that your friend is okay.. Glad to know that you enjoyed the ‘Fire and Hemlock’ afterword, though it has spoilers. It is sad when there are spoilers.

        • It proves you shouldn’t read an afterword first. 🙂
          I found the beginning a bit confusing and I thought the afterword would help. It did but it contained a few spoilers. Not too bad. I’m enjoying the book. I’m already on page 260.

  9. Writers do love sibling incest. I wasn’t particularly tempted by Regeneration, which is plainly better, so I’ll definitely be skipping this one.

    Thanks for throwing yourself on top of this particular literary grenade Caroline!

  10. Well, I was feeling bad that life has been so crazy lately that I didn’t even have time to start this one for the discussion, but now I’m actually glad that I didn’t get to it. Serena really liked Private Peaceful, so hopefully that’ll be a better reading experience for you. I borrowed it from her, so I’ll join if I have time. 🙂

  11. I’m actually reading a book now that has a man who was wounded in the face in WWI. Sorry this wasn’t the best read. Yeah, the incest bit would be a bit much for me. And I’m curious about the foreshadowing. Might be good for me to read as a writer.

  12. “My biggest problem however was that she felt she had to start with an incest. Why was that necessary?” Exactly the question that popped up in my mind when I read the beginning of your review. I don’t like unnecessary drama in books. If it becomes too much, it’s not plausible anymore.

    To be honest, when I saw Tonks and Neville, I just wondered where Harry Potter was. Unfortunate choice of names for characters.
    Then I saw that Tonks is a real painter. I’d never heard of him, I’ve checked him out. Now, I’ve learnt something. See that painful read was useful to someone at some point! 🙂 (on top of giving us a fair warning to pick something else to read…)

    I hope that next month book will be better because it’s disappointed to spend time with a book we don’t like.

    • It wasn’t a painful read but one that annoyed me for the choices the author made. The story as such is pretty thin but trying to make it bigger through the incest . . .
      I’m very interested to see Danielle’s review, because, like CarolineD she liked it. It had moments but if you’ve never read her, -the Regeneration trilogy is outstanding – this – can be skipped.
      I think that J.K.Rowling often took famous names.

  13. Despite not getting on with the book you write a very good post about it! I’m not sure why she would choose to use incest in the book. I need to think about that more I think. I have not read any other reviews (other than yours) so I wonder what other’s think–I’m sort of not surprised that more people didn’t like it than did. I think she perhaps plotted it this way to make people uncomfortable on purpose. I somehow (considering the connection with Virginia Woolf) think that nothing was not on purpose. There were so many things about this book that were uncomfortable, and in a strange way I think that is in part why I liked it so much. It wasn’t pretty or easy reading (it was easy reading, but not easy reading–of course), as a matter of fact it was almost ugly, and maybe since it is about war, a messy ugly affair, she wanted to make people feel that? Not sure, but you raise some very good questions! I will have to read that Guardian review–and I plan on reading Life Class now as well. Even if you didn’t like this–it was indeed a great choice of books–always good when a book pushes you like this and makes you think (even if it is why you do or don’t like something).

    • I was very glad I chose this because it0s a thought-provoking book, even i terms of writer’s choices.
      You make an excellent point about the incest/Woolf connection. That’s exactly it, I’m pretty sure. I didn’t not think of that at all. Was the relationship with one of Woolf’s brothers incestuous? Or uncles? I’ve read quite a bit about that and how that was one of the sources for her illness. Seen that way, it does make sense.
      I guess it would have been good to read Life Class first.
      I hope you’ll read and review it. In spite of what i wrote, I liked it much better than March because Barker’s writing is smooth.

    • I just looked it up and it was her half-brothers who took her and Vanessa as sexual objects.
      Thoby was the elder brother whom she liked very much.

  14. Pingback: Louisa Young: My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You (2011) Literature and War Readalong September 2014 | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  15. Hi Caroline, I may have mentioned this before, but my book group has been reading Toby’s Room (alongside All Quiet on the Western Front), and our discussion is tonight. I was also disappointed by the Barker for many of the reasons you mention in your review. I’m puzzled as to why Barker introduced the incest theme at such an early stage in the book as it wasn’t developed and (in my view) failed to add anything to the story or characterisation. I was expecting a different ending and the actual resolution didn’t ring true to me either. Like Kevin, I thought there was something going on between Elinor and Catherine, but yet again that idea didn’t seem to go anywhere (unless I completely missed it!). For me, Tonks was one of the most interesting characters in the book and I would have liked further exploration of his work and tensions between him and Elinor…perhaps that’s covered in Life Class.

    All in all, I’ve decided not to review Toby’s Room as I’ve got a review backlog (and I didn’t particularly click with this book). Also, as German Lit Month is about to start, I’d rather focus on reading and reviewing a few others! It’s very interesting to read your review and others’ comments here though; thanks for kick-starting such an interesting discussion.

    • I’m glad to hear you felt the same about the incest. It’s not the topic per se but the way she treated and introduced it. It seemed so pointless. The whole book was a huge disappointment, especially since I liked The Regeneration Trilogy so much. Sometimes auhtors just don’t let go of a favourite theme when they clearly should. Tonks is by far the most interesting character but the way Louisa Young trated the facila disafigurement and the artists who helped them was even better. More emotional.
      Reading it alongside “All Quiet” did probably not help.

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