I really wanted to love Toby’s Room – released 16th August – because, whilst it is not in any way a bad book, I had not enjoyed Life Class, the book whose events are sandwiched by those in Toby’s Room, as much as I had hoped. Toby’s Room was going to bring me back to Barker. However, I found it oddly unsatisfactory despite, or perhaps because of, its thoroughly competent and occasionally powerful character. Toby’s Room returns to the young Slade-trained artists of Life Class, Elinor Brooke, her ex-lover Paul Tarrant, and Kit Neville, as well as their artist-surgeon teacher Henry Tonks by whom Barker was clearly fascinated and who plays a larger part in Toby’s Room as the portraitist of disfigured servicemen. At the heart of everything is Elinor’s brother Toby whose presence haunts the novel. Their complex relationship of desire and dependence, and his apparent disappearance and death on the battlefield set her on an obsessive mission to discover what happened to him. So close growing up, one day is enough to derail their relationship.
Toby had been right all along. Somehow or other they had to get back to the ways things were. What had happened was not something that could be talked about, or explained, or analysed, or in any other way resolved. It could only be forgotten.
After he is reported ‘Missing: Believed Killed’ Toby’s bedroom becomes the repository of guilt and longing, but most of all the signifier of the empty space inside Elinor. It is the space she needs to fill, to exorcise, before any resolution becomes possible. His ghost is everywhere, not least in the person of Elinor herself, who bears such a resemblance to Toby. Following his disappearance her work becomes inspired, she paints landscapes each of which contains the diffuse shadow of her brother. Indeed, Toby is only ever seen through the eyes of others, all artists, which is fitting as the analysis and deconstruction of the War, and of Toby in particular, by each of them seems to be Barker’s key concern. In the pre-War section Tonks enrols Elinor in an anatomy class where she dissects an unknown man and is repelled by so clinical an approach to the human form: she cannot see the life in such an artistic programme.
Churned-up flesh; churned-up landscape.
The ordered and disordered in the analysis and destruction of flesh underpins the novel and probes the artist’s role and aims in the body’s depiction. As Paul Tarrant puts it when describing his Nash-echoing landscapes, ‘The point is, the wound and the wasteland are the same thing. They aren’t metaphors for each other, it’s closer than that.’ This affinity between ruined earth and ruined flesh can be seen in Kit Neville, who returns from France with an awful facial injury and is sent to the specialist facial reconstruction hospital at which Tonks works to record the progress, or lack thereof, of the patients’ recoveries. Neville is an unflinching, unsympathetic Modernist, all hard edges and machined parts, all of which make him ideal both as an observer in France, and as the individual whose facial disfigurement both challenges his Futurist aesthetic and leads to his being, in turn, subject to another’s analytic gaze.
The northern light flooding in through the high windows was pitiless, but not more so that Tonk’s gaze. He was still at the table selecting pastels from a tray, but now and then he stopped to look at Neville, who felt his injuries had never been more cruelly exposed than in this glaring light.
The ambivalence of the artistic response to disfigurement and ruin is well played-out in Elinor’s response to an injured patient.
He had been a remarkably handsome man; still was, on one side of his face. If anything, his injuries threw the beauty of his remaining features into sharper relief. He reminded her of some of the ‘fragments’ they used to draw at the Slade where so often a chipped nose or broken lip seemed to give the face a poignancy that the undamaged original might have lacked. It disturbed her, this aesthetic response to wounds that should have inspired nothing but pity.
This marks the beginning of a more sophisticated response both to the war and to artistic practice on the part of Elinor. So what is it that fails to satisfy? Part of the problem may well be that this is well-trodden ground for Barker and, indeed, for many others. She has spoken of the First World War as our myth, our Illiad: a set of events which can be endlessly reinterpreted and represented as a means of exploring human nature and action. This is a valid position, as the wealth of good Great War literature attests, but new ground should be broken each time and supported by the particular characters and narrative presented, and this is where Toby’s Room becomes unsatisfying. As a study of differing reactions to service, grief, and injury, Toby’s Room is fairly compelling, particularly in Neville’s brooding and occasionally explosive recuperation, whose morphine dreams transport him back to the Front, and to Toby. However, the whole book feels curiously unmotivated, and the figure of Elinor is partly to blame.
The paradox of Elinor is that she so resembles her brother as to become unconvincing as a woman. She is curiously unsympathetic in her pursuit of the truth of Toby’s fate, simultaneously passive and aggressive and oddly opaque despite our access to her mind. Without the violence of the Front to fall back on – something Elinor’s political stance precludes – the normal centrifugal force of Barker’s men is missing, despite the attempt to supply that founding injury in another form in 1912.
One also has to question whether Toby’s Room works as a stand-alone novel given its oddly bracketed structure. As far I can tell it is not presented as a sequel to Life Class whose narrative, for all that I was not bowled over by it, at least had the virtue of cohesion and a quality of concentration. Toby’s Room is dark, disturbing, and, in certain respects, acutely insightful; and yet it refuses to cohere as it should in order for its aims to be fulfilled. In that sense it is frustrating, but certain passages stand out as impressive, in particular those about art: those focused on the artists are less compelling in general, and suffer from a lack of weight. This is a good book, but it’s not the return to form I was hoping for. Essentially, the problem is that it’s all been done before. It’s no Regeneration.