My 12 in 12 Challenge – July – Two World Wars – Book 2

Toby’s Room by Pat Barker is also about WW1 like the first book in this month’s challenge. It is the second part of a trilogy by this author which is similar to her more famous Regeneration trilogy. In these three books, known as the Life Class trilogy the author explores the relationship between art and war by following three characters from their pre-war lives as art students in London and through the conflict to which they each react in their own way. The third book, which I have not yet read, takes the story on to WW2.

I picked up this book last summer in a second hand book shop near Evesham thinking that it was a stand-alone book. When I got it home I realised that it was part of a series and so I had to buy and read Life Class before I moved on to this title. I would find it very difficult to read a series out of order and I don’t recommend that you do that with this author’s works as she builds on previous books in each new volume.

Elinor is the main character in this book. She has studied at the Slade school of Art and she specialises in figure drawing so she needs to learn anatomy. She refuses to have anything to do with the war until it impinges on her reality when her brother Toby dies. To get through the grief she needs to understand his death and so she enlists the help of her former lover Paul to find out what has happened. They discover that their fellow student Kit was with Toby in his last days and may know something but he has had severe facial injuries and will not talk.

The book looks at all the ways in which the war slowly brings people into its grip. Elinor finds herself working with her old tutor drawing horrendous facial wounds and their reconstruction. Kit is having to learn to live with disfigurement. Elinor’s family are struggling with bereavement. Elinor’s German friend has to suffer prejudice. Everyone seems at a loss. No one really understands what is going on or how to live their old life in this new world. This is best shown as Elinor begins to find out what has happened to Toby and she loses all sense of him except for memories and his effects still in his room where he left them.

This is a very moving book. It offers an insight into some of the experiences of people during WW1. It also presents us with some of the appalling choices people have to make, and the restrictions and expectations of society which colour what people do, especially women. There is an appalling act of betrayal in this book which is presented as inevitable and which has tragic consequences.

Pat Barker has written a number of intelligent and moving books about the effects of war on ordinary people of which this is one of the best that I have read – I definitely recommend them. This one has a great cover too – it is what initially attracted me to the book when I saw it.