……….That title in full is actually “Bombardment, barrage, curtain-fire, mines, gas, tanks, machine-guns, hand-grenades – just words, words, words, but they hold the horror of the world!”. It comes from Erich Maria Remarque’s ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’.
This latest novel by Pat Barker does the same – it takes the horrors of that time, turns them into words, but her rather understated and straight prose fits the context so well. It means there’s no chance of forgetting that for all that the words you read are shapes and letter formations you know so well, it is impossible to comprehend the devastation they describe.
That’s one of the emotional contrasts in this book - words and sentences that make perfect literal sense combining to describe a destruction of both the human body and the spirit that’s beyond comprehension. The book goes across both the pre- and post-war periods, contrasting the innocence and hope of one with the painful re-building of lives in the midst of despair in the other. And in the middle, carnage.
Sister and brother, Toby and Elinor Brooke, grow up together in the warmest and closest of sibling relationships. Theirs is a life of genteel Edwardian privilege, but before the war, one dark event threatens to tear their relationship apart. And yet it survives, if anything the event draws them still closer together emotionally. Nevertheless this darkness sits silently but ominously between them. But even with this, the bond between the pair appears unbreakable until Toby is posted ‘Missing, Believed Dead’ at the Western Front in 1917. It’s a telegram message read by thousands of families across Europe at that time, but the shadow it casts on Elinor’s life leaves her to be bereft not only by the absence of her brother, but by the absence of any knowledge of how he died or why? There’s a sense in Elinor that all is not as it seems but she still sets out to uncover the story behind her brother’s death. She enlists the help of a former lover from her pre-war art student days, Paul Tarrant, himself both a physical and emotional casualty of his time at the Front. Emily’s determined search for the truth, and Paul’s reluctant support of that search, lead them to focus on another fellow ex-art school student, Kit Neville. Neville was in the fox-hole with Toby Brooke at the time of his death, but he’s saying nothing. Neville is recovering at Queen’s Hospital from having his face destroyed, a patient of the pioneering face reconstruction work of the surgeon Harold Gillies, and the trained surgeon-cum-artist Henry Tonks. It is in this world of destroyed bodies and lives under reconstruction that Elinor tries to finally find out why her brother died.
The book is a narrative journey, not so much through the actions of the characters, but more a narrative journey through their emotions. At its heart it focuses on survival and reconstruction of bodies, minds, souls, relationships and even memories. The main characters are all strong but there’s no tension in that collective strength – instead it delivers a book which in some ways is about good and bad things people do, and about good and bad things which happen to them, without having any hero’s in the story and without having any characters as villains. Instead it has the feel of a book where the characters are all too fragile and battered to be heroic and a book where the villain of the piece is the world they live in.
Years ago I read Pat Barker’s “Regeneration Trilogy” focused on Siegfied Sassoon, and the treatment for some soldiers deemed to be suffering from shell-shock. It was based on the real-life work at Craiglockhart of the psychiatrist WHR Rivers. In many ways there’s a familiarity with Toby’s Room and yet there’s a freshness to Toby’s Room too. But what they share is the great fit between Barker’s economic prose and the subject matter. The book is an emotional experience to read, but it’s never maudlin’ or sentimental. Instead the emotion comes from the scale of the devastation the characters experience and the fact that somehow they survive. When I read books like Toby’s Room, now from the comfortable distance of almost 100 years, it amazes me that any of them survived it – there’s a raw brutality and almost disregard for people that leaves me feeling angry and appalled in equal measure. So a read of Toby’s Room isn’t an ‘enjoyable’ one because of the subject matter of suffering and survival, I don’t think it’s meant to be ‘enjoyable’. But it’s a terrific book and in my view, it’s one that’s not to be missed.