Pat Barker has written another thoughtful and compelling novel about World War I and how it changed the life of all who managed to survive. In my opinion Barker is one of the most outstanding novelists who writes of this era. This book lives up to her previous trilogy in which some of the same characters appear. She has a masterful way of including both real and fictional characters that seems perfectly natural. Beside the main characters, Virginia Woolf and some of the Bloomsberries appear as well as Henry Tonks the physician and war artist. In fact, the title of this novel, Toby's Room is much like Woolf's Jacob's Room, in which Woolf writes about her dead brother Thoby, which is another connection.
Barker's story opens in London at the Slade School of Fine Arts where Elinor Brooke is enrolled as an art student studying anatomy and drawing under Henry Tonks. At first we are given some background of Elinor's family, especially her intense relationship with her brother Toby. As in Barker's other novels of war, we see the sad effect it has both physically and psychologically on the characters in the book. Elinor has a relationship with two soldiers who were art students in her class before they went off to France. Both Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville play important roles in the novel. Toby Brooke is equally important, but we only discover his story after his death. Elinor is obsessed with finding out how and why Toby has died in France, and Kit Neville is the only one who knows.
Neville is horribly disfigured when he returns to London to receive treatment at Queen Mary's Hospital which specializes in reconstructive facial surgery to repair war wounds. Meanwhile, he is keeping secret Toby's death and what he know about it. We begin to learn, through his morphine dreams and shell-shocked memories, what really happened on the battlefield.
Henry Tonks who in real life, worked at St. Mary's as a surgeon and artist, created a portfolio of drawings of his patients that he and other physicians used in their work. There is a web site devoted to these paintings that can be accessed today. In the novel Tonks convinces the talented Elinor to assist him in his portraiture.
The climax of the novel takes place in a violent storm on the Suffolk coast where Paul and Kit stay for the weekend. After a bout of heavy drinking, Paul learns the truth from Kit and how his story is entwined with that of Toby's and how Toby met his end.
I highly recommend this book to all. It is not necessary to have read Barker's previous novels to enjoy this book which stands alone. It is a thought provoking and absorbing novel.