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Covered faces and exposed psyches

by
01 November 2013

Michael Wheeler reads an allusive novel, Toby's Room, by Pat Barker

Artful and knowing novelist: Pat Barker

Artful and knowing novelist: Pat Barker

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 triangles).

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 Middlemarch.

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 life.

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 Victorians.

 

TOBY'S ROOM - SOME QUESTIONS

What message do you think the author is trying to convey in this novel?

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 died?

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 differ?

How did Elinor's past affect her relationships with Paul and Kit?

Why did Paul not reveal the whole truth about Toby's death to Elinor?

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 (CT Bookshop £8.10); 978-1-84408-451-7).

Book notes
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.

Author notes
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 in 1980.

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

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