Twenty years ago Pat Barker won acclaim with Regeneration, her novel about shell-shocked army officers undergoing treatment at the Craiglockhart psychiatric hospital for soldiers during the first world war. Her new novel is a close scrutiny of parallel atrocities of 1914–18. As in Regeneration, some characters are based on real-life figures.
Several scenes are set in Queen Mary’s Hospital, Sidcup, where the pioneer plastic surgeon Harold Gillies worked to rebuild the smashed or scorched faces of soldiers who had been fighting on the Western Front — ‘1,000 young men with gouged-out eyes, blown-off jaws, gaping holes where their noses had been’, as a visitor finds. Henry Tonks, Professor of Drawing at the Slade Art School, collaborated with Gillies by producing pastels showing patients’ injuries and the effects of repeated surgical interventions. The Tonks portraits (some of them horrifying) can be found online at www.gilliesarchives.org.uk: it is not the least of Pat Barker’s achievement in Toby’s Room to use her scrupulous gifts to depict the gruesome world of the Sidcup hospital and to honour its patients and staff.
A Slade student of Tonks’s, named Elinor, is Barker’s central protagonist. She comes from an Edwardian family of the professional classes, seething with murky secrets, chief of which is that on a hot summer night in 1912 she had sex with her medical student brother, Toby. Subsequently, at Tonks’ instigation, she takes lessons at a medical anatomy school, where her emotions as she dissects a human face ‘become linked in her mind with the passion, bewilderment and pain of that night in Toby’s room’.
Toby serves as a medical officer at the front, crawling across No Man’s Land rescuing corpses and collecting identity tags from the dead. Elinor becomes fixated by a tinge of mystery surrounding his death, and enlists the help of her quondam lover, a fellow artist called Paul, in worming the truth out of a mutilated Sidcup patient, Kit. Elinor is never more sexually aroused by Paul than when he stands over their bed naked except for Toby’s old overcoat smelling of the dead man. The novel closes with the promise of resolution, as Elinor shuts the door for the last time on the bedroom where the incest occurred.
Toby’s Room is a meticulously crafted novel, without a wasted word or woozy image. The tight, beautiful eloquence is typified by Barker’s evocation of a winter landscape: ‘Cropped hawthorn hedges ran across a vast expanse of snow, like lines of Hebrew script.’ There are subtle inflexions, deft details and moments of macabre comedy. Her protagonists are lovingly imagined, and their destinies compassionately developed. Barker is quintessentially English in the way that she describes heartfelt emotions in mild prose.
Yet her subject is somehow distancing. Toby’s Room is a novel of cheated hopes, foiled ambitions, secret sorrows and bereavement. Although there are summer scenes in lush countryside, much of the book has a necessarily drab setting. The helplessness of people in wartime — the futile waste of combatants’ lives, the baffled numbness of existence for civilians, the hopelessness of those facing maimed or mournful futures — provides the governing theme. There are risks in writing a novel about pointlessness. Toby’s Room, for all its grace and tension, leaves the reader feeling rather flat