THE year 1914 - an entry in the world's long chronology that,
when spoken, sounds like a muffled bell. As we approach the
centenary of this historical watershed, we might dust down our old
notes on "The origins of the First World War", or catch yet another
documentary, or revisit the so-called "war poets", now set texts in
literature courses, whose images of unrelieved gloom are contested
by some modern historians.
Or we can turn to Pat Barker's recent and highly praised novel,
Toby's Room. This book serves as a good preparation for
the four- year marathon of commemoration which awaits, but is only
for those who are feeling strong.
The story of Elinor, a young artist, and her brother Toby, a
doctor, begins in 1912, and then moves abruptly to 1917. She
becomes a medical illustrator in England, recording some of the
terrible facial injuries sustained at the front, where Toby patches
up the wounded, and crawls into no man's land at night to retrieve
the identity discs of those listed as "Missing, believed dead",
before joining them himself.
Having been trained at the Slade by Professor Tonks - a real
surgeon and art teacher from history - Elinor ends up working for
him at Queen's Hospital, Sidcup. She first visits the hospital in
order to see a difficult friend from art school, Kit Neville, who
was with Toby when he died.
The sights that greet her in the hospital, described
unblinkingly, are "worse than Brueghel, because they are real". As
Tonks points out, speaking of the worst cases, if it were him, he
would rather be dead.
Facial masking is currently a hot political topic in Western
coun- tries that have substantial Muslim minorities, reminding us
of how much more we learn from a person's face than from other
"body language". A British charity, Changing Faces, is now helping
us to learn how to react to someone who looks different.
In Toby's Room, Tonks and Elinor record the damaged
faces of young men who are not allowed mirrors, although they all
secretly seek blurred reflections of themselves on the surface of
water, or on the back of a spoon. The brutality of mechanised
warfare is brought home at this intimate level, as Barker moves
below the surface, probing not only the wounds, but also the
psyches of the wounded.
She frames her account of the horrors of war in an account of
Elinor's relationships, artfully arranged in a series of doubles
(as in Shakespeare's comedies, with all those doublings of role and
gender) and triangles (as in Thomas Hardy's doomed love
The doubles theme is established with shocking immediacy at the
beginning of the novel, in an account of Elinor's incestuous
relationship with her brother, initiated by Toby in the ruined mill
in which they had played as children.
Their mother, locked in a loveless marriage, senses that
something is wrong, and reveals to Elinor that Toby was born with a
"papyrus" twin, squashed flat in the womb as the healthy foetus
grew, but still recognisably female. Hence little Toby's "imaginary
friend", until Elinor comes along and replaces her.
In adulthood, with the fall into knowledge, triangles multiply.
Elinor sleeps with a fellow artist, Paul Tarrant, himself wounded
in the war, who later fantasises about a ménage à trois
with Elinor and her friend Catherine, until their resemblance to
conjoined twins puts him off. Paul, Kit, and Elinor form another
triangle; and, in case the reader misses the point, Kit calls
Elinor "Our Lady of Triangles".
This is a very knowing novel, as well as an artful one: it is
peppered with literary references. Zeppelins fly over a London
described as the City of Dreadful Night; figures from the
Bloomsbury set flit through various episodes. But the most powerful
literary parallels are more covert, and link Toby's Room
to 19th-century English fiction, and particularly to George Eliot.
Elinor's surname is Brooke, as is Dorothea's in
Doubles and triangles coalesce in Barker's novel, when Paul
sleeps with Elinor in the dead Toby's bed, and when Kit finally
tells Elinor the disturbing truth about Toby's death. The
nightmares that result are followed by a sudden moment of
transcendence, when, hovering on the margins between sleep and
waking, Elinor sees her brother:
And there he was: standing with his back to the window, stripped
to the waist . . . and his arms outstretched in a parody of
crucifixion. The room was full of viscous, golden light; he seemed
to be the source of it. His skin glowed.
As he bends to kiss her, a shadow falls; she knows that "We
can't do this, you're dead," and, in a second, he is gone. A winter
dawn "restores her to the waking world" (an echo of
Middlemarch). She leaves Toby's room for the last time,
and runs to let Paul in - to the house, and perhaps to her
Such an ending takes a huge artistic risk, as a novel that has
revisited the dark side of the Old Testament concludes with a
gesture towards the New, and to the Magdalene's liminal encounter
at the tomb.
Michael Wheeler is a Visiting Professor of English at the
University of Southampton, and a former Lay Canon of Winchester
Cathedral. His most recent book is St John and the
TOBY'S ROOM - SOME QUESTIONS
What message do you think the author is trying to convey in this
What are Elinor's strengths and weaknesses? How do they affect
the way she lives her life?
How do Elinor's landscapes in which Toby always appears reflect
the story she lives through?
Toby was one of twins, but only he survived. What impact does
this have on his relationships with people?
Why is it so important for Elinor to know exactly how Toby
Barker mixes real characters with fictional ones. Is it
justified to make up actions and conversation for real people in a
work of fiction, though they may not be strictly accurate?
How do the attitudes of the male and female characters to war
How did Elinor's past affect her relationships with Paul and
Why did Paul not reveal the whole truth about Toby's death to
Why was the art of reconstructing faces so important to those
who carried it out? How did it change the lives of those whose
faces were operated on?
The book's ending leaves open the next stage of Elinor's life.
How would you continue the story, were you to write a sequel?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 6 December, we will print
extra information about the next book. This is
Excellent Women by Barbara
Pym. It is published by Virago Modern Classics at £8.99
Bookshop £8.10); 978-1-84408-451-7).
Mildred Lathbury is an intelligent, witty spinster living
in 1950s London. She has no family; her life revolves around
friends, church, charity work, and her own not-quite romances. Her
life is disturbed by the arrival of glamorous new neighbours,
Helena and Rockingham Napier. Their marriage is troubled, and
Mildred becomes drawn in as a go-between, not taking sides (though
secretly admiring Rocky), especially when a third person, Everard
Bone, becomes involved. Her closest friends, Fr Julian Malory and
his sister, Winifred, also have love tangles of their own, when
Julian becomes engaged to a woman who wishes to sideline his
sister. Mildred does not remain uninvolved.
Barbara Pym (Features, 24 May) was born in Shropshire in
1913 to Frederic and Irena Pym; her mother played the organ in
church. She was educated in Liverpool, and at St Hilda's College,
Oxford, where she was awarded a degree in English. After
university, she returned home and wrote her first novel, although
this was not published until 1950. Five more novels followed
between 1952 and '61, including Some Tame Gazelle and
A Glass of Blessings. A gap in her being published led her
to concentrate on her work as editorial secretary for the
International African Institute, but her next book, Quartet in
Autumn (1977), was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. She died
Books for the next two months:
January: The Lady with the Little
Dog and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov
February: The Compassion Quest by
Trystan Owain Hughes