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Toby's Room by Pat Barker

British novelist, Pat Barker is best known for the Regeneration Triology, focused on World War I. Toby's Room covers some of the same territory...the years leading up to the war when it was all but unimaginable...and the years of the war when it also was all but unimaginable. Toby's Room is a superb novel offering a full account of what it was like to be a young person in England during those times.

Barker's focus is on Elinor and Toby, younger sister and older brother, in a milieu of other well-educated, troubled young Brits hoping to find their way ahead in the professions or possibly the arts but somehow landing in the trenches of Ypres. Elinor, the painter, and Toby, the medical student, more or less open the novel committing an act of unanticipated incest and then struggling to "put things back the way they were before." There's something about Toby, whose gesture of a certain kind of kiss opened the door to more, that won't be put right, however. He's elusive, suddenly less of Elinor's soulmate and more a figure of an older generation.

So Elinor pursues other interests--not just love interests, aesthetic interests, sense of self interests--and settles among colleagues at an art school where she prospers, but remember: in the early part of the twentieth century, young women were not expected to go far. Barker has a wonderful sense of pace as she unfolds this tale and brings on the war. She also develops a series of characters who are attractive for all the wrong reasons--too loud, too quiet, too German, too censorious... Lots of arrangements and relationships are explored that don't pan out, nor should they. There's no settling for less than what is truly compelling among these young people. When they don't fit together, they drift apart but remain courteous, even friendly.

The point of view shifts: Sometimes Elinor's point of view, sometimes her diary, sometimes the point of view of a young man named Paul Tarrant. These shifts are handled effortlessy. Barker writes splendidly about both the English countryside and London. She's just as good along stretches of slate-strewn stormy coast. When the war hits, the men are fed into it. Those who return often are maimed. A young man named Kit Neville has his nose blown away. Paul Tarrant has a permanently bad, painful leg. Toby doesn't return. Elinor wants to know why not. She thinks Neville knows the story but can't get it out of him. For the longest time, neither can Paul.

I won't reveal the ending. I'd rather return to the middle to late sections where Elinor and others are working at a hospital for veterans with facial wounds. Neville is one of them. The horrors of facial disfiguration are graphically presented. It's hard to read about these things--rebuilding a nose, reconstructing a jaw, mending a shattered cranium. Men went to war; monsters returned...but again, not Toby. Despite the disturbing material that lies at the core of Toby's Room, it's a novel almost anyone interested in realistic fiction, or fiction dealing with WWI, would enjoy. The writing and characters are consistently satisfying, the complex moral dilemmas the novel explores are taken head on. This is a very good novel.

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