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?
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.