Pat Barker writes historical fiction about the World War I period in England that doesn’t descend into formulaic genre. One key to her literary success is her gift for unlocking complex people. And since this is historical fiction, we know that the Kaiser will never install his officials in Whitehall. Her people don’t know that. All we have is an outline of their history. It’s Barker’s eloquence in revealing the details that makes their story come alive.
Ten years from now, twenty-somethings will ask you what it was like to live in the 20th century. They’ll probably be rather patronizing about it, like you’re some curio of an antique who just happens to be still doddering around.
We all descend into the past more rapidly than we can imagine. A hundred years from now, I hope there’s a Pat Barker around to tell our story. Narrative genius distilled by time. Ten decades from now, some empathic writer with knowledge of our time frame will unlock our voices. Their characters of the future may not be us but they will be “like” us. That’s my argument for historical fiction.
Toby’s Room flows on the basis of a dance of doubled characters as it drifts towards the disclosure of a secret, one of several secrets in the story. The most important secret of all is never disclosed to anyone except the reader.
It seems that Barker’s mind works by creating a character. And then creating another character to complement the first. And then creating a second pair of characters to counterpoise the first pair. Even her own vividly drawn people are caught up in binary substitutions…trying to replace or substitute one of a pair for another, as if you were missing a pearl on your most precious necklace and had to find another to replace it.
The primary pairing is of Elinor and Toby, siblings. Emotionally, Elinor never leaves her brother’s room. Even after the room becomes a family memorial to a son lost during the Great War and the family deserts as her parents’ marriage breaks up. Elinor remains in the country house alone with the family dog, painting landscapes in which her brother appears as a ghostly image.
Barker writes that there were many such bedrooms after World War I. Rooms left by their families in stasis after a beloved son is lost. Toby is “missing and believed lost” his body obliterated in trench warfare bombing. The horror of physical obliteration is an important Barker theme, perhaps even more horrific if it’s partial.
I want you to try a blog experiment. Look down at your right hand up to the wrist. Now try to imagine that it’s not there. Now imagine that the nose on your face is missing. You are breathing through a hole in your face. Now attempt to imagine, I think it’s near impossible, the physical torment of having your hand or your nose blown off of you. Most of us never have to face the horror of physical dismemberment. In an age like ours, where the survival of the soul seems increasingly unlikely to be pulled off, your body is all you’ve got. Your body is you. Isn’t it terrifying how vulnerable your body is? I know, you don’t want to think about it.
But if there’s a last ditch argument for the existence of an interior life, it’s that it can be disfigured as much as our bodies. And maybe our subjectivity is proven to be real because it can keep secrets from the outside world. That’s what happens to Elinor, that’s why she’s painting alone in her parents house in the middle portion of the novel. And why she never “leaves” Toby’s room.
Elinor committed incest with her brother in that room. And it wasn’t just Toby’s idea. After it starts, Elinor walks into Toby’s room in the middle of the night and does it again. Barker’s understanding of motivation is wonderful. When Elinor slips into Toby’s room, she is not aware of why she is doing it. It’s a relationship that neither party admits to themselves or to each other. The act of incest, which has no acceptable social corollary, takes place in non-space, in non-time, by non-people.
I loved the contradictory levels in Elinor’s personality. Later at the Slade School, where Elinor is studying art…her brother is a med student…her new friend Kit Neville suggests that they cut classes for the afternoon. Elinor is shocked by the suggestion. As a conscientious student, she’d never cut classes. But she is the keeper of the secret, like a container of contaminated waste held within, that she has committed incest with her brother. That’s a buried event and life goes on.
It seals Elinor’s emotional dismemberment that her brother Toby is not just lost but physically obliterated on the battlefield. Alone at her parent’s country home, she entertains Paul Tarrant, another school friend. The next morning, she wants to have sex with Paul while he is wearing Toby’s coat.
Elinor has moved into her lost brother’s bedroom while living in the house alone. Of course, she has her own bedroom in the family home but she prefers her brother’s room. At night she uses Toby’s coat as an extra blanket even though there must be extra blankets in the house. It seems like Elinor is a wandering ghost in her outer life, adhering to all the accepted social conventions, while she is continually attempting to replay an inner drama that can never reach closure.
Paul Tarrant spends a weekend at Kit Neville’s coastal house. Paul has chronic leg pain from the war and walks with a limp. Kit had his face blown apart and wears a mask of Rupert Brooke’s face when he goes out. Rupert Brooke was the premier World War I poet. Lost in the war, he was strikingly handsome and a mask of his face had been taken up by many disfigured World War I vets.
Elinor’s press to uncover the details of her brother’s loss is the current that drives Toby’s Room forward. Toby is the great puzzle and Kit has so far refused to tell Elinor what he knows. Kit was a stretcher bearer in Toby’s medical unit at the front. Paul has been deputized by Elinor to find out the truth.
Two vets of a medical non-combat unit, Paul and Kit, hanging out for the weekend in a largely stormed-locked house on the coast. Barbed wire lines the beach in defense against a German invasion that we know, by the benefit of hindsight, will never come. The levels of their conversation are wonderful. Kit doesn’t want to open up about Toby. At first Kit doesn’t want Elinor told. And then it seems he indirectly consents to Elinor being told. They return to the house during the storm after watching the dramatic launch of the village lifeboat. There’s a breach in the barbed wire of Kit’s personality.
Toby’s Room, in an appendix, refers to a website where you can see drawings of the faces of disfigured World War I vets. The portraits of soldiers, undergoing the primitive 1917 version of plastic surgery, were drawn by a master draughtsman of the time frame, who appears as a character in the novel. I didn’t want to look at the drawings.
Toby’s Room by Pat Barker will release in the fall from Doubleday. This is the first Barker novel that I have read and the first to be reviewed on this blog. I’ll read them all from now on.