x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Book review: Barker returns to First World War in Toby's Room

The distraught sister of a medical officer missing during the First World War implores a shell-shocked soldier who who was there to tell her what happened.

Toby's Room
Pat Barker 
Hamish Hamilton

Pat Barker won the Booker Prize for the final part of her Regeneration trilogy in which real-life figures (such as wartime poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon), stalked its consideration of shell shock.

The author returns to the First World War era for this stunning novel, this time concerning physical rather than mental wounds. This story, of a brother and sister with a shared secret, is set among the war artists of the period and touches on the work of pioneering New Zealand-born plastic surgeon Sir Harold Gillies.

Artist Elinor Brooke is distraught when her brother Toby, a medical officer, is listed as missing and presumed dead. She wants Kit Neville, a talented artist who was a stretcher bearer with her brother, to tell her what happened. Kit, with half of his face disfigured, doesn't want to say.

As ever with Barker, the story rattles along at an excellent pace, while still rendering the characters in full so we can empathise with even the most unlikeable individuals.