Pat Barker is a highly acclaimed and award winning author with books such as the Regeneration trilogy, comprising Regeneration (1991); which was made into a film of the same name; The Eye in the Door (1993), which won the Guardian Fiction Prize; and The Ghost Road (1995), which won the Booker Prize, as well as her more recent novels Another World, Border Crossing, Double Vision and Life Class.
I first saw this book, Toby’s Room, in Waterstone’s where it was their February book of the month and I was captivated. It is set pre and during the trauma of the Great War and revolves around Toby, a medical student and his sister, Elinor, who is studying at the Slade under the renowned Henry Tonks. Elinor is a pacifist and eschews everything to do with war however her brother serves as a medical officer and is ‘missing, presumed killed’. Coming from a family who have many hidden secrets, Elinor feels a great desire to find out how Toby died so that she can grieve. It is through her two friends, Kit and Paul, who have also served in the war that we find out not only about Toby but at how much the war destroyed those who survived.
The book is beautifully written depicting the total waste of human life and the many other lives that were shattered from the fallout of a war. I have read other books about this period also involving Henry Tonks, the famous artist that helped Gilles, one of the pioneering plastic surgeons, to reconstruct many faces that were so badly damaged and virtually unrecognisable from the war. Whilst I sort of felt I knew how it was all going to turn out, because of the way it is written you are drawn to continue reading whilst you know that there are going to be no happy endings. It is both excellent in execution but horrendous in content as both the living and the dead haunt and elude us but I would wholly recommend that you read it.