In her novel “Life Class,” Pat Barker introduced her readers to a group of students at the Slade School in London, where they studied art with professor Henry Tonks. Elinor Brooke and Kit Neville came from the upper-middle class. Elinor’s family lives in the country; Kit is a Londoner. Paul Tarrant was a working-class boy.
“Life Class” takes place just before and at the beginning of World War I. The novel focuses principally on Paul, who is not happy with his landscape painting. Kit has left Slade and become a well-known painter of realistic industrial scenes. Both men are in love with Elinor. Once war is declared, Kit enlists as an ambulance driver. Paul enlists later and serves as a medic in field hospitals. Elinor and Paul have a brief fling when she goes to visit him in Ypres, Belgium.
“Toby’s Room,” Miss Barker’s excellent new novel, takes place both before and after “Life Class.” It begins in 1912. Elinor is very serious about her drawing. Her older sister is married, her parents live separate lives together, and she adores her older brother, Toby, a medical student. When the relationship between Toby and Elinor takes an incestuous turn, Elinor is confused, but her love for her brother is not diminished. Elinor, Paul and Neville have become friends.
By 1917, the young men have gone to war. Toby, now a doctor, chooses to serve as an officer in the front lines. Kit is under his command. Paul serves as a medic until a German bullet shatters his leg. Henry Tonks, a doctor as well as professor of art, works in a hospital specializing in repairing the faces of men shattered by bullets and shrapnel.
Elinor, almost compulsively, has refused to recognize the impact of the war on her life. “[S]he lived a life almost obsessively devoted to triviality. She’d turned into a pond skater, not because she didn’t know what lay beneath the surface, but precisely because she did.”
Tonks persuades a reluctant Elinor to help him in drawing the mutilated faces of the soldiers coming back from the front to help the surgeons in their reconstructive work. One of those soldiers is Kit, whose nose has been blown off.
Elinor has a premonition that Toby will not return from the front. Yet, when the telegram arrives informing the family that Toby is “missing, believed killed,” she cannot but hope that he may still be alive. “[A]s the days and weeks went by, not knowing how he’d died became a torment. She had to make his death real; it was finality that she’d begun to crave.” When Toby’s belongings are returned to the family, she finds a letter to her hidden in the lining of a uniform, telling her to ask Kit if she has questions about his fate, but Kit refuses to enlighten her.
What is remarkable in “Toby’s Room” is Miss Barker’s now well-known talent for creating the complex psychological and physical reality of World War I. While her depiction of the conditions in the trenches and field hospitals is vivid in its despairing details, it is her understanding of the psychological turmoil faced by the soldiers on a daily basis that is truly gripping.
Kit speaks of the constant fear: “You began by being appropriately, rationally, afraid, the extent of the fear always proportionate to the danger. But the process of erosion is unrelenting. After repeated episodes of overwhelming fear, you start to become punch-drunk. You take stupid risks, and sometimes you get away with it, but not for very long. If you’re lucky, you may be wounded, but don’t count on it. If you’re not, the third stage is just around the corner. Fear is omnipresent. Sitting in a cafe, with a beer in front of you, you’re neither more nor less afraid than you are in the front line. Fear has become a constant companion; you can’t remember what it’s like not to be afraid.”
The war changed Paul. Once he had been “a romantic, deferential, almost timid, in his approach to women.”
“Three years later, he’d become coarser, less scrupulous; his behavior verged, at times, on the predatory. For two years, his relationship with Elinor had protected him, but then her letters had become shorter, colder, until eventually she’d dropped writing altogether; after that, he’d regarded himself as free to take what he wanted.”
As the novel progresses, we see the evolution in the protagonists and feel their anguish in a world ravaged by the ugliness of war.
It is not only in evoking the fields of battle that Miss Barker’s prose shines. Elinor observes, walking by a field being harvested by German prisoners, “Men like charred sticks stood around they were black against the burning gold of the field — everything seemed to be on the point of bursting into flames like one of Van Gogh’s landscapes, and the air burned the back of your throat. Dogs leaping up and down on the end of their leashes like black scribbles on the air.” Or a description of a night in London: “Only the moon was real, pouring white acid onto the streets, dissolving cabs, trams, motorcars, offices and shops in its cold stream. Its light seemed to form a brittle crust over the city, like the clear fluid that oozes from a wound.”
As she did in her earlier novels, Miss Barker incorporates real people into her narrative: Henry Tonks really was an artist and doctor. “Ottoline,” who befriends Elinor during the war, is Ottoline Morell, a leading member of the Bloomsbury group, known in real life for her hospitality,
“Toby’s Room” ends ambiguously. Elinor’s father has sold their house. Elinor takes a last look at Toby’s room before running down the stairs to join Paul, who has come to fetch her from the empty house. The future is open-ended. Will there be a sequel? I hope so.
• Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.
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