Booker Prize winning author, Pat Barker, deserves her acclaim; she skilfully creates the believable world of Toby’s Room. Beginning in 1912, this dark novel explores the horror and loss of the First World War, largely through the thoughts of Elinor, an artist whose brother and close friends leave for the front line. The mystery of her beloved sibling’s cause of death is her obsession through the latter part of the text. Barker’s clever narration follows the musings of her characters, allowing occasions of ellipsis to reveal uncertainty and ambiguities of feeling, mirroring the secrets and enigma in the plot.
Elinor is interesting, but I preferred the scenes between her friends, Paul and Kit. The discussions of art provide a visual frame of reference and expression. Kit is particularly compelling as his morphine-induced flashbacks gradually reveal life on the front line and the truth about the eponymous Toby.
I found parts of the book too gruesome for my taste as dissections and facial injuries feature heavily. I can see, however, that it builds the intended atmosphere of horror and shock; the author is pushing for a visceral realism that gives the novel its emotive power.
Although some of the plot choices didn’t sit right with me (I’m afraid I can’t elaborate without spoilers) it is a vivid and honest portrayal of the era, of grief and destruction.