“Toby’s Room” is probably the seventh book by Pat Barker I have read. I must admit that I was so impressed and affected by her “Regenaration” trilogy when I had read it a couple of years ago, that Barker became one of my favourite writers, and I have been coming back for more of her writing ever since. “Toby’s Room” is a sequel to “Life Class”, although it can be read as a separate book as well. And, together with “Life Class” it’s another disturbing and vivid account of life before, during and after the WWI.
I liked “Toby’s Room” more than “Life Class”, even if it could not touch me in the same way as the “Regeneration” trilogy. The two books in the series follow the lives of a few art students in The Slade, a renowned art school in London, and their inevitable transformation by war. Barker masterly analyzes the place of art in war: does it make sense to keep making art? Can you still be impartial? If you keep making art during the war, does it convert you into a conchie? Can art become part of a war machine? All these questions torment the characters while sooner or later they all get drawn in by the devastating and omnivorous beast of war.
One of the aspects of Barker’s historical novels that I really love and admire is her capacity to mix real historical characters with invented ones so naturally. I always end up guessing which of them really existed, looking them up, reading their biographies, and learning a lot of historical details which are not directly presented in the book. It awakens my curiosity for history, and I finish her books, hopefully, a little less ignorant than I was before opening them.
In “Toby’s Room” we meet at least a couple of these characters. One of them is Henry Tonks, a surgeon and a strict and formidable art teacher at The Slade, who introduces anatomy classes to art students, so that they can get to know a human body in all its aspects. Elinor, an art student and one of the main characters of the book, attends anatomy class together with medical students, and studies it by slowly dissecting a body of an unknown man during a period of a few months, until there is nothing left of it but bones. After the war Tonks works as an illustrator in Queens Hospital, where facial injuries are treated, in order to depict the faces of the soldiers before and after the surgeries. Here he works with Harold Gillies, a surgeon and another historical character, who is now considered the father of plastic surgery. Barker’s vivid description of the atmosphere in the hospital, together with Tonks’ paintings and Gillies’ plastic surgery methods, illustrations of which you can easily find online, is powerful and disturbing. Both through the scenes of the dissected man in the anatomy class, and through the injuries of the patients in Queen’s Hospital, which involve the protagonists as well, Barker studies the relation between face and identity.
I could not truly connect to the characters of the book and found them a little distant, especially in comparison to other books of Barker, and that must be the reason of why they are mostly absent in my review. However, my four stars go to the incredibly complicated topics analyzed by the author, to introducing me once again to the horrors of war, seen from different angles which I had been incapable of imagining before opening this book, to disturbing me once again, and to never failing to shake me out of my comfortable numbness.