Toby's Room is the sequel to Pat Barker's 2008 book Life Class. That book followed a group of would-be artists studying at the Slade School of Art on the eve of the First World War. As war broke out, it looked at how they dealt with that and the impact it had on all of their lives.
Toby's Room picks up a few years later in 1917. Old friendships have broken up, partly due to the demands of war, although links still remain between each of the characters. When Elinor receives news that her brother is classed as Missing, Believed Killed she needs to understand how he dies. Enlisting the help of her former lover (and fellow artist) Paul Tarrant, she begins to suspect that another former Slade acquaintance, Kit Neville, knows more about Toby's death than he is admitting.
What's most remarkable about Toby's Room is how little actually happens, and how gripping that is. Almost the entire book can be boiled down to one simple thing: Elinor's quest to try to find out how her brother died. Yet Barker manages to make this idea stretch to over 250 pages without it ever feeling padded.
It's here that she really shows her strength as an author. Some authors would have turned the plot into a murder-mystery with the First World War as a backdrop; others would just have dragged it out too long. Barker, on the other hand, uses it as a springboard to look at other issues: the impact of the war on the lives of soldiers who are maimed at the frontline and the hypocritical reactions of those at home; the differencing perceptions of war between those who have actively experienced it and those who have merely read the propaganda.
The plot flows effortlessly, something which is helped by the deep, well-thought out characters. It helps, of course, that this is the second book featuring these characters, so (assuming you have read it) you already have something on which to build. For the most part, characters are consistent with the previous book (more on this in a moment) and Barker uses this sequel to develop them further. Since we already know them, we have an affinity with them. As such, when they are in pain (whether due to war wounds or more abstract causes), we feel deeply for them. However, selfish and thoughtless some of them can be at times, Barker never lets you forget that they are also human beings, with all the flaws and contradictions that this involves.
Of course, the slight downside to all this is that to get the most out of Toby's Room you really do need to have read Life Class - ideally fairly recently. You could just about get away with reading this as a standalone novel, but you would certainly lose much of the richness that Barker has built in. The characters have moved on and developed since we first met them, and it's interesting to see how they have changed and the way they have been shaped and altered by their experiences.
The only real weakness to the book is the prologue, set in 1912 and revealing a dark secret kept by Toby and his sister Elinor. I have no idea whether Barker always had this secret in mind when she wrote the original book, or whether it is something which evolved subsequently, but it didn't feel right to me. It's (almost) irrelevant to the main body of the book and feels artificially tacked on, as though Barker feels she needs to open with a revelation that will instantly hook the reader. In fact, it almost had the opposite effect for me. It was so out of sync with what we had already learned of the characters that I felt this element was rather crass and unnecessary. Having finished the book, I still do: whilst it has some relevance to the plot, it always feels artificial and could easily be done away with without causing any damage to the main plot.
Like its predecessor, Toby's Room is a very thought-provoking book, full of deep, well fleshed out characters. Crucially, though, it's a book which is not in the slightest bit preachy. Barker represents all viewpoints; from the fierce supporters of war to those who refused to participate in any active way, and she passes judgement on none of them. Every group is given a fair hearing. This gives Toby's Room a fresh feeling when compared with other war literature, which tends to be stridently anti-war. Here, Barker simply acknowledges that war has a massive, lasting impact on everyone who lives through such conflicts, not just those who are killed or injured in the line of duty.
Toby's Room is not going to be everyone's cup of tea. Like Life Class, it could be accused of having a somewhat sedate pace and anyone expecting a "war novel" full of thrilling battles and hand to hand combat will be very disappointing. The war is very much a backdrop, something that pervades every aspect of people's lives and is unavoidable, yet something which people try to cope with in very different ways. If you are looking for an interesting character study of how people respond to massive society-changing events, then Toby's Room is a book for you; if you're looking for action and excitement, you'd be better off looking elsewhere.
Toby's Room is available for around £6, depending on the format chosen. If you've read Life Class, then this is definitely a book you will want to read, as it reunites you with some old friends. If the idea of the book appeals to you, but you've not read Life Class, then I'd suggest you start there before tackling this one.
Copyright SWSt 2013