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Barker engages readers with return to Great War

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FIVE years after her last novel, Pat Barker's highly anticipated return to the First World War is a thought-provoking and engaging read.

Based in Durham, England, Barker is best known for her 1990s Great War trilogy (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road). She combined real-life figures, such as noted psychiatrist Dr. William Rivers and famous anti-war poet Siegfried Sassoon, with her own characters. The trilogy would win both the Guardian Fiction Prize and the Booker Prize. Her most recent novel, Life Class, was published in 2007.

Toby's Room begins in 1912. Elinor Brooke is attending the Slade School of Fine Art and studying under the famous Dr. Henry Tonks. While at the school, she meets fellow students Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville.

On a weekend visit home, an encounter between Elinor and her brother Toby leaves her confused and unsure of the future of their unusually close relationship.

Followers of Barker will recognize these characters from her previous novel, which is set in 1914. Serving as something of a prequel, the opening section of Toby's Room shows the first meetings of these characters, but the rest of the novel skips over the events portrayed in Life Class and resumes in 1917.

Now several years into the war, Toby is reported missing and believed killed, and Elinor becomes obsessed with learning the truth about how her brother died. Kit, severely injured at the front, is sent to Dr. Tonks' hospital, which specializes in facial reconstructions. Certain that Kit knows something about Toby, Elinor seeks the help of Paul, also injured in the fighting and now working as a war artist, to find out what Kit is refusing to tell.

Much like in the Regeneration series, Barker blends actual characters with fictional ones. In real life, Tonks produced a series of pastel drawings of the faces of injured soldiers, both before and after reconstructive surgeries.

Tonks refused to publicly exhibit these drawings, and when they do appear in the narrative they present an interesting dilemma that is central to one of the novel's themes: "Were they portraits, or were they medical illustrations? Portraits celebrate the identity of the sitter.... Here, in these portraits, the wound was central."

For all of her expertise on the various historical events and facts about the First World War, Barker wants to remind readers of the real people who lived through it.

While she describes battles, Barker is much more interested in the complex psychological traumas and conflicts experienced by the people who are affected, to varying degrees, by the war.

Elinor provides an engaging and distinctly feminine perspective on what is usually perceived as a profoundly male-dominated historical event. Elinor observes women handing out white feathers to all men not dressed in military uniform to shame them into joining the fight.

She also sees women hurl bricks through the windows of homes and shops owned by anyone with German-sounding names. She notes that "it's true, women aren't more peaceful than men. It pains me to say it, but the one thing this war has shown conclusively is how amazingly and repulsively belligerent women are."

Reviews of Life Class expressed some predictions that it would serve as the start of a new trilogy. Toby's Room is self-contained, but given that by its conclusion there is still a year left before the end of the war, it seems likely that a third novel will appear to bring closure to the stories of these characters.

If the next entry explores complex ideas as grippingly and poignantly as this novel does, that will be a very good thing, indeed.

 

Keith Cadieux teaches English literature and creative writing at the University of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 6, 2012 J7

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