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Pat Barker revisits WWI in 'Toby's Room'

"Toby's Room" by Pat Barker (Doubleday, October 2012)

"Toby's Room" by Pat Barker (Doubleday, October 2012) Credit: Handout

TOBY'S ROOM, by Pat Barker. Doubleday, 302 pp., $25.95.

"Regeneration" in 1991, which re-imagined the lives of the war poets, Pat Barker's most powerful novels have charted the psychic and social reverberations of World War I. In "Toby's Room," the sequel to "Life Class" (2007), Barker revisits the world in which she's most at home: one of hats, horses and handwritten letters, in which a woman could still shock her family by cutting her hair short and enrolling at art school -- and into which the war arrives as a slow cataclysm, described without sentiment or grandiosity.

The novel begins in 1912 as the beautiful and talented Elinor Brooke struggles to resist marriage and to be taken seriously as an artist. During a stifling weekend at her childhood home, Elinor suffers two destabilizing shocks: Her brother, Toby, her only respite in a family hostile to her artistic ambition, suddenly violates their close relationship; immediately afterward, she learns that Toby was a twin, whose female sibling died in the womb.

Elinor flees back to her studies at London's Slade School of Art. There she meets Paul Tarrant, the central character in "Life Class." While Paul accepts a commission as a war artist, Elinor is determined to keep art and war separate. She is encouraged by the pacifist members of the Bloomsbury Group, who adopt her as a decorative addition to their parties, where Vanessa Bell and her sister, "Mrs. Woolf," hold court.

Eventually, however, the "combine harvester" of war cuts too close to be ignored. When her friend and former lover Kit Neville arrives at Queen's Hospital with facial injuries, Elinor is persuaded to work there as a medical illustrator, alongside her former Slade drawing master, Henry Tonks. The real Tonks, a surgeon before he became an artist, also made pastel portraits of the injured men, which he refused to exhibit during his lifetime.

Here, Elinor is given a glimpse of the portraits and struggles to understand what she's seeing: "She found her gaze shifting continuously between torn flesh and splintered bone and the eyes of the man who had to suffer it. There was no point of rest; no pleasure in the exploration of a unique individual." The war's effects defy representation.

At one point Elinor observes in her diary "a frenzy of midges around my bare arms, little frantic things, as if the air had turned to glass and they were trying to get out." The description serves as an apt metaphor for the novel's characters, who frequently seem as if they are moving under glass, never quite breaking into life.

The story's inconclusive ending invites a third installment; until then, it's a tantalizing, unfinished canvas.

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