Toby’s Room

Pat Barker, Author
Pat Barker. Doubleday, $25.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-385-52436-0
Reviewed on: 08/06/2012
Release date: 10/02/2012
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Fans of Barker’s Regeneration trilogy know she has a gift for combining real and imagined characters, for making you see the horrors of war, and for knowing that people don’t stop having sex or being themselves because there’s a war on. This story, which revisits the characters of Barker’s last novel, Life Class, and is also set before and during WWI, features some of these traits, but, alas, without the fierce immediacy that made the trilogy so memorable. The titular Toby is painter Elinor Brooke’s brother; they’re close, problematically so; when news comes that he’s “missing, believed dead,” the need to know what happened takes over Elinor. In time, it reconnects her to Kit Neville, part of Toby’s team of medics, and Paul Tarrant, soldiers and war artists who were her fellow students, and, in Paul’s case, her former lover. Part mystery, part exploration of the varieties and vagaries of love and grief, part a description of British efforts to devise prosthetics and document the worst injuries, the book covers a lot of ground—perhaps too much. Readers may not feel the same urgency that Elinor does, and the eventual solution to the mystery, coming as it does amid all the other themes, doesn’t pack the necessary punch. Agent: Gillon Aitken, Aitken Alexander Associates. (Oct.)