Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Genre: War Fiction
Toby’s Room is the story of the death of a man: Toby Brooke, who is killed in the middle of the First World War under mysterious circumstances. Appearing remarkably little in the actual book, this novel is not so much about real events but more about the effects of those events.
The ripples on the surface of the duck pond that Toby emerges from, touching the lives of Toby’s beloved younger sister Elinor, her lover Paul Tarrant and their friend Kit Neville – artists who met and studied under Henry Tonks at the Slade School of Art before the outbreak of war changed their lives entirely.
For me, it was the first chapter of Toby’s Room that really captured my imagination. Set on a stiflingly hot day in the summer of 1912, Elinor and Toby set out on a walk to the disused mill- a place they often visited as children. Here, it would be easy for many writers to explore the golden sunlight and that ‘last long summer afternoon’ motif so often recalled in relation to the last days before the war.
However, Barker’s prose is unflinchingly honest without a trace of floridity. And yet she still manages to capture your imagination with the contrast of the blaze of bright sunlight, the heat of the day, and the feel of the silken grass stems across Elinor’s bare skin with the “occasional cool shock of cuckoo spit”, and the cold darkness of the old mill.
Up until this day, Elinor and Toby were “the only members of the family who kept no secrets from each-other” but as of that evening, they both keep a dark secret from the rest of the world. A secret which will taint the rest of their lives and overshadow every event that follows.
The second half of the novel jumps forward to 1917 and moves from the Slade to Queen Mary’s Hospital in wartime London and the battlefields of France. Toby is reported “Missing, Believed Killed” and Elinor, trapped in a state of denial, becomes obsessed with finding out how Toby died and why, convinced that this quest for truth will help her finally close the door on her brother’s bedroom and the secret held within it.
“What I really think, deep down, is that the dead are only dead for the duration. When it’s over they’ll all come back and it’ll be just the same as it was before”
The novel is unexpectedly tender where you expect brutality, lingering over the chasm Toby’s death has created in Elinor’s life emphasised in the omnipresent weight of his room on her mind, the smell of him still on the sheets, his uniform hung up on the door. It is through this that Barker achieves a muted intensity that is almost heartbreaking.
Toby’s Room also raises the question of what role art plays in society; Should art be a form of celebration as Elinor believes? Or should it be an act of documentation, like Henry Tonks’ work? Or even a method of immortalising those we’ve lost? And is it right to use art as an act of propaganda, perpetuating a view of the war that is based on lies for the ‘greater good’?
5/5. Rarely do I come across a novel that leaves such an imprint on my mind. Toby’s Room is a dark novel about desire, identity and loss, and one of the most powerful accounts of the effects of war that I have ever read.