The more I think about Pat Barker's novel, Toby's Room, the more I like it. What felt at first like a story lacking in much narrative tension and with odd and very disparate strands, despite being a war story, has on closer thought to be much more complex and layered in meaning. At least I have been thinking about it a lot lately. Toby Brooke, about whom the story is about, is actually absent during most of the book which puts me in mind of Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room. (Now I am wondering if it is coincidence or how many of the similarities are on purpose?). Toby is the thread that connects the characters. What happens to him in the war is the motivation and reason for much of what takes place in the novel, though for me the focus felt at least as much on his sister Elinor.
(I'm afraid I have to give a spoiler or two away, so please be warned).
The story begins in 1912 but quickly moves on to the later years of WWI. Elinor is an art student at the Slade and appears to be on the periphery of the Bloomsbury set. Her family seems the typical middle class repressive sort and it's obvious she's trying her best to assert herself. She goes so far as to make up a boyfriend, another Slade student, who she will later be intimate with. Her brother Toby with whom she shares a close relationship is studying to become a doctor and at his urging she takes a course on human dissection obsessing over the identity of the man who is the subject of the students' scalpel. As a matter of fact Elinor worries and picks at many of the things that happen in her life. She's not one to let unanswered questions rest.
When war breaks out she wants to have nothing to do with it, to support it in no way though she will later become involved in sketching the wounded soldiers, those men who have been horribly disfigured on the battlefield. Toby, who serves as a stretcher bearer and medic, is one of many who is listed as 'missing and presumed dead', which is a status that is unacceptable to Elinor. It essentially means there was nothing left of the man to recover from the battlefield, but she has trouble believing there isn't more to the story. Either he's still alive but wounded, or later when she finds an unsent note in his army tunic claiming he knows he won't return, feels something more happened that no one will tell her about.
As a Slade student she was intimate with several men, including (to be frank) her own brother. Perhaps it's this indiscretion (what a nice way of putting it, yes?) that makes her so cold even somewhat callous. Although she was a willing participant, as much as a young girl is in such a situation, it's obviously affected how she reacts to other men. Although a loose circle, the group of friends such as they are, go to war together. What happens to Toby on the battlefield (which I won't give away) makes more sense in light of his relationship with his sister. One man has the key to the mystery and another prods him for it at Elinor's urging.
This is a story without any heroes. There is no glory to war in these pages. As a matter of fact Pat Barker tells a story completely unsentimental even a little mundane and ordinary. Real life is messy even without a war. Bad things happen in families and sometimes people are simply cold and even a little nasty. It's not just Elinor who seems heartless. Her former lover returns with a damaged face, but it's not just his face that is damaged. Perhaps he stands for that generation who came home from the war in body but with wounded souls. He doesn't look for pity from others and even confronts them with his own cruelties.
I mentioned recently that books with unlikable characters were often some of the most interesting. It's hard to warm up to any of the characters in Toby's Room, but I didn't like the story any less for their flawed characters. Even Toby is referred to as both "compassionate" and "inhumane" at the same time. I think, though, this is a very "human" story--albeit humans filled with all sorts of inadequacies and inconsistencies. And while there was no glory, I think that in their ways the characters do try and do their best. Even Toby, inhumane though his contemporary may have called him, tried in the end to choose the honorable path in light of the choices he made in how he chose to live his life.
I think this is not Pat Barker's best work--I still must read the Regeneration trilogy, but I found this to be an intriguing and satisfying read. Toby's Room is one of Caroline's Literature and War Readalong books. You can read her thoughts on it here (and she links to more reviews as well). Next up is Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo.