Toby’s Room felt like my kind of book at first glance, the description was definitely something that piqued my interest, as I have always enjoyed reading stories taking place during the Great War. I have seen two covers now for this novel, and this one seems to be the most arresting as it does bring in the artistic aspect of Elinor and her painting and art studies. This was also the cover of the advanced reading copy provided to us by Random House (thank you Andrew!) The second cover, (I’ll attach below) also brings in another strong visual from the novel however.
While I did not read Barker’s Life Class, this tidbit had me quite interested in accepting Toby’s Room for review:
Following the events of 2008’s Life Class, Toby’s Room opens in July of 1917. Elinor Brooke is still painting, but her brother Toby is shipping out to the front as a Medical Officer, a fact that she cannot bring herself to accept. Toby finds himself on the same Channel crossing at Kit Neville, a close friend—and aspiring suitor—of Elinor’s from before the war. As their three lives intersect and intertwine, they will be forced to confront the very human costs of war.
Pat Barker once again demonstrates her ability to eloquently convey simple, moving truths. The enormity of the war’s impact—not only on soldiers at the front but also on the loved ones they leave behind—is poignantly expressed in her unflinching and elegant prose.
Goodreads also shares this as part of their synopsis, “This indelible portrait of a family torn apart by war focuses on Toby Brooke, a medical student, and his younger sister Elinor. Enmeshed in a web of complicated family relationships, Elinor and Toby are close: some might say too close.”
Well, this part about Elinor and Toby’s close relationship is definitely where the book left me cold, bitter and annoyed. Barker opens with an evening of incestuous relations between Elinor and Toby and it happens once again before Elinor begins her studies at the art institute, Slade. Following these relations is a meandering filled tale of jealousy and obsessiveness that leaves the reader annoyed and for me, upset. It was a novel that I found I would quickly cast aside in order to read any other, more attention-capturing novels. Then, and thanks to Audiobook Jukebox and AudioGo it became available in audio format narrated by Hoarder Elizabeth’s love, Nicola Barber ….so I figured, alright, this should make it easier and nicer to complete! The folks at Random House initially did take the time to send a copy so I really should complete this.
Unfortunately, I simply still could not get past my strong dislike for Elinor and her all-encompassing obsession with Toby. A few months back I toiled through The Bellwether Revivals and the strange relationship between those two siblings and I feared I was lost in another story too similar to it! Wah.
So the story goes that following their incestuous relations, Elinor is off to art school and her every day happenings and relationships formed there are tainted with Toby. What would Toby think? Would Toby like this person? How will Toby react? I really must talk to Toby. Her relationships with Kit Neville and Paul are very intertwined with Toby, and it comes upon a time when Toby is off to the front along with Kit and Paul. Paul returns unscathed, Kit is laying in hospital missing half his face and Toby is presumed dead. Upon her discovering the telegram noting Toby’s death in action, Elinor falls deeper in to her obsessive state, locking herself away at the family’s cottage painting and painting and painting. While brilliant, each work contains a shadowy figure that can only be Toby. This creepy obsession becomes clear even to her two paramours that she is a tad touched in the head concerning Toby. On an evening with her most recent lover, Paul, Elinor covers herself in Toby’s soldiers jacket and attempts to make ferverent love to him, causing him to push her away sensing something bizarre and creepy about the situation. And on and on it goes, Elinor can never stop wondering if Toby is truly dead and what does this final note from Toby really mean when he says to ask Kit Neville why he will never return?
EW reviewed Toby’s Room and offered a B- grade. I agree with this grade and this assessment, “Though the writing is lucid and often beautiful, the narrative tends to dither, and the final reveal delivers only a muted impact.”
The lucid, beautiful writing is indeed also nicely captured by Nicola’s narration, however it does not improve the story enough for me to overcome my disdain. Also, EW’s “dithering” comment is bang on, and couple this with my disdain for the obsessive and incestuous relationship between these two siblings and it was a novel that I could only endure and plod through in order to finish. I was quite happy to reach its conclusion. Unfortunate, but true.
While Toby’s Room does capture some wonderful moments that do beautifully convey the war’s impact on its soldiers and citizens, the creepiness of Elinor and her unnatural relationship with Toby was not enough to sway me in favour of this story.
Here is the second cover for Toby’s Room, which also very aptly portrays scenes from the book. This is the room where Elinor locks herself away in and where she leads Paul only to don this coat in an attempt to seduce Paul. Ick.