Pat Barker, Booker prize-winning author of the Regeneration trilogy returns to WWI in this dark, compelling novel of human desire, wartime horror and the power of friendship.
Toby and Elinor, brother and sister, friends and confidants, are sharers of a dark secret, carried from the summer of 1912 into the battlefields of France and wartime London in 1917.
When Toby is reported 'Missing, Believed Killed', another secret casts a lengthening shadow over Elinor's world: how exactly did Toby die - and why? Elinor's fellow student Kit Neville was there in the fox-hole when Toby met his fate, but has secrets of his own to keep. Enlisting the help of former lover Paul Tarrant, Elinor determines to uncover the truth. Only then can she finally close the door to Toby's room.
Moving from the Slade School of Art to Queen Mary's Hospital, where surgery and art intersect in the rebuilding of the shattered faces of the wounded, Toby's Room is a riveting drama of identity, damage, intimacy and loss from the author of The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road. It is Pat Barker's most powerful novel yet.
Pat Barker was born in 1943. Her books include the highly acclaimed Regeneration trilogy, comprising Regeneration, which was made into a film of the same name, The Eye in the Door, which won the Guardian Fiction Prize, and The Ghost Road, which won the Booker Prize. She is also the author of the more recent novels Another World, Border Crossing, Double Vision and Life Class. She lives in Durham.
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Part One: 1912
Elinor arrived home at four o’clock on Friday and went straight to her room. She hung the red dress on the wardrobe door, glancing at it from time to time as she brushed her hair. That neckline seemed to be getting lower by the minute. In the end her nerve failed her. She hunted out her pink dress, the one she used to wear for dancing classes at school, put it on and stood in front of the cheval mirror. She turned her head from side to side, her hands smoothing down the creases that had gathered round the waist. Oh dear. No, no, she couldn’t do it, not this time, not ever again. She wriggled out of it and threw it to the back of the wardrobe. Out of the window would have been more satisfying, but her father and brother-in-law were sitting on the terrace. She pulled the red dress over her head, tugged the neckline up as far as it would go, and went reluctantly downstairs.Father met her in the hall and hugged her as if he hadn’t seen her for a year. Outside the living room, she hesitated, but there was no point wearing a red dress and then creeping along the skirting boards like a mouse, so she flung the door open and swept in. She kissed Rachel, waved at Rachel’s husband, Tim, who was at the far side of the room talking to her mother, and then looked around for Toby, but he wasn’t there. Perhaps he wasn’t coming after all, though he’d said he would. The prospect of his absence darkened the whole evening; she wasn’t sure she could face it on her own. But then, a few minutes later, he came in, apologizing profusely, damp hair sticking to his forehead. He must’ve been for a swim. She wished she’d known; she’d have gone with him. Not much hope of talking to him now; Mother had already beckoned him to her side.
Rachel was asking Elinor question after question about her life in London, who she met, who she went out with, did she have any particular friends? Elinor said as little as possible, looking for an excuse to get away. It was supplied by her mother, who appeared at her side and hissed, ‘Elinor, go upstairs at once and take that ridiculous dress off.’
At that moment the gong sounded. Elinor spread her hands, all injured innocence, though underneath she felt hurt and humiliated. Yet again, she was being treated like a child.
Father came in at the last minute just as they were sitting down. She wondered at the curious mixture of poking and prying and secrecy that ruled their lives. Mother and Father saw very little of each other. She needed country air for the sake of her health; he lived at his club because it was such a convenient walking distance from the hospital, where he often had to be available late at night. Was that the reason for their week-long separation? She doubted it. Once, crossing Tottenham Court Road, she’d seen her father with a young woman, younger even than Rachel. They’d just come out of a restaurant. The girl had stood, holding her wrap tightly round her thin shoulders, while Father flagged down a cab and helped her into it, and then they were whirled away into the stream of traffic. Elinor had stood and watched, open-mouthed. Father hadn’t seen her; she was sure of that. She’d never mentioned that incident to anyone, not even to Toby, though she and Toby were the only members of the family who kept no secrets from each other.
She sat in virtual silence for the first half of the meal – sulking, her mother would have said – though Tim did his clumsy best to tease her out of it. Did she have a young man yet? Was all this moodiness because she was in love?
‘There’s no time for anything like that,’ Elinor said, crisply. ‘They work us too hard.’
‘Well, you know what they say, don’t you? All work and no play . . . ?’ He turned to Toby. ‘Have you seen her with anybody?’
‘Not yet, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.’
Toby’s joining in the teasing, however reluctantly, was all it took to chafe Elinor’s irritation into fury.
‘Well, if you must know I have met somebody.’ She plucked a name from the air. ‘Kit Neville.’
This was not true: she’d hardly spoken to Kit Neville. He was merely the loudest, the most self-confident, the most opinionated and, in many ways, the most obnoxious male student in her year, and therefore the person she thought of first.
‘What does he do?’ Mother asked. Predictably.
‘He’s a student.’
‘What sort of student?’
‘Art. What else would he be doing at the Slade?’
‘Have you met his family?’
‘Now why on earth would I want to do that?’
‘Because that’s what people do when –’
‘When they’re about to get engaged? Well, I’m not. We’re just friends. Very good friends, but . . . friends.’
‘You need to be careful, Elinor,’ Rachel said. ‘Living in London on your own. You don’t want to get a reputation . . .’
‘I do want to get a reputation, as it happens. I want to get a reputation as a painter.’
‘You know what I mean.’
‘Oh, for heaven’s sake.’
‘Elinor,’ her father said. ‘That’s enough.’
So even Father was turning against her. The last mouthful of cheese and biscuit sticking in her dry throat, Elinor followed her mother and Rachel out of the dining room. They sat over a pot of coffee that nobody wanted, staring at their reflections in the black windows that overlooked the airless terrace. The windows couldn’t be opened because of moths. Rachel had a horror of moths.
‘So who is this Mr Neville?’ Mother asked.
‘Nobody, he’s in my year, that’s all.’
‘I thought you said classes weren’t mixed?’
‘Some are, some aren’t.’ She could barely speak for exasperation; she’d brought this on herself. ‘Look, it’s not as if we’re going out . . .’
‘So why mention him?’ Rachel’s voice was slurry with tiredness.Tendrils of damp hair stuck to her forehead; she’d eaten scarcely anything. She yawned and stretched her ankles out in front of her. ‘Look at them. Puddings.’ She dug her fingers into the swollen flesh as if she hated it.
‘You must be worn out in this heat,’ Mother said. ‘Why don’t you put your feet up?’
Feet up in the drawing room? Unheard of. But then Elinor intercepted a glance between the two women, and understood. She wondered when she was going to be told. What a family they were for not speaking. She wanted to jump on the table and shout out every miserable little secret they possessed, though, apart from the breakdown of her parents’ marriage, she couldn’t have said what the secrets were. But there was something: a shadow underneath the water. Swim too close and you’d cut your feet. A childhood memory surfaced. On holiday somewhere, she’d cut her foot on a submerged rock; she’d felt no pain, only the shock of seeing her blood smoking into the water. Toby had taken off his shirt and wrapped it round her foot, then helped her back to the promenade. She remembered his pink fingers, wrinkled from the sea, the whorl of hair on the top of his head as he bent down to examine the cut.
Why couldn’t they leave her alone? All this nonsense about young men . . . It was just another way of drilling it into you that the real business of a girl’s life was to find a husband. Painting was, at best, an accomplishment; at worst, a waste of time. She was trying to hold on to her anger, but she’d suppressed it so long it was threatening to dissipate into depression. As it so often did. Why hadn’t Toby spoken up for her? Instead of just sitting there, fiddling with his knife and fork.
She was thoroughly fed up. As soon as possible after the men joined them, she excused herself, saying she needed an early night. As she closed the door behind her, she heard Father ask, ‘What’s the matter with her?’
‘Oh, you know,’ Mother said. ‘Girls.’
Meaning? Nothing that made her feel better about herself, or them.
Next morning after breakfast Toby announced that he was going to walk to the old mill.
‘In this heat?’ Mother said.
‘It’s not too bad. Anyway, it’ll be cooler by the river.’ Elinor followed him into the hall. ‘Do you mind if I come?’
‘It’s a long way.’
‘Toby, I walk all over London.’
‘Don’t let Rachel hear you say that. Rep-u-tation!’
They arranged to meet on the terrace. Soon Elinor was following her brother across the meadow, feeling the silken caress of long grasses against her bare arms and the occasional cool shock of cuckoo spit.
‘You know this chap you were talking about last night . . . ?’
‘Oh, don’t you start.’
‘I was only asking.’
‘I only mentioned him because I’m sick of being teased. I just wanted to get Tim off my back. Instead of which, I got Mother on to it.’
‘She’s worse than Mother.’
‘She’s jealous, that’s all. She settled down a bit too early and . . . Well, she didn’t exactly get a bargain, did she?’
‘You don’t like Tim, do you?’
‘He’s harmless. I just don’t think she’s very happy.’ He turned to face her. ‘You won’t make that mistake, will you?’
‘Marrying Tim? Shouldn’t think so.’
‘No-o. Settling down too early.’
‘I don’t intend to “settle down” at all.’
She hoped that was the end of the subject, but a minute later Toby said, ‘All the same, there has to be a reason you mentioned him – I mean, him, rather than somebody else.’
‘He’s perfectly obnoxious, that’s why. He was just the first person who came to mind.’
Once they reached the river path, there was some shade at last, though the flashing of sunlight through the leaves and branches was oddly disorientating, and more than once she tripped over a root or jarred herself stepping on air.
‘Be easier coming back,’ Toby said. ‘We won’t have the sun in our eyes.’
She didn’t want to go on talking. She was content to let images rise and fall in her mind: her lodgings in London, the Antiques Room at the Slade, the friends she was starting to make, the first few spindly shoots of independence, though it all seemed a little unreal here, in this thick heat, with dusty leaves grazing the side of her face and swarms of insects making a constant humming in the green shade.
She was walking along, hardly aware of her surroundings, when a sudden fierce buzzing broke into her trance. Toby caught her arm. Bluebottles, gleaming sapphire and emerald, were glued to a heap of droppings in the centre of the path. A few stragglers zoomed drunkenly towards her, fastening on her eyes and lips. She spat, batting them away.
‘Here, this way,’ Toby said. He was holding a branch for her so she could edge past the seething mass.
‘Fox?’ she asked, meaning the droppings.
‘Badger, I think. There’s a sett up there.’
She peered through the trees, but couldn’t see it.
‘Do you remember we had a den here once?’ he said.
She remembered the den: a small, dark, smelly place under some rhododendron bushes. Tiny black insects crawled over your skin and fell into your hair. ‘I don’t think it was here.’
She listened, and sure enough, between the trees, barely audible, came the sound of rushing water.
‘You’re right, I remember now. I thought it was a bit further on.’ She thought he might want to go there, he lingered so long, but then he turned and walked on.
The river was flowing faster now, picking up leaves and twigs and tiny, struggling insects and whirling them away, and the trees were beginning to thin out. More and more light reached the path until, at last, they came out into an open field that sloped gently down towards the weir. A disused mill – the target of their walk – stood at the water’s edge, though it was many years since its wheel had turned.
This had been the forbidden place of their childhood. They were not to go in there, Mother would say. The floorboards were rotten, the ceilings liable to collapse at any minute . . .
‘And don’t go near the water,’ she’d call after them, in a last desperate attempt to keep them safe, as they walked away from her down the drive. ‘We won’t,’ they’d chorus. ‘Promise,’ Toby would add, for good measure, and then they would glance sideways at each other, red-faced from trying not to giggle.
Now, Elinor thought, they probably wouldn’t bother going in, but Toby went straight to the side window, prised the boards apart and hoisted himself over the sill. After a second’s hesitation Elinor followed.
Blindness, after the blaze of sunlight. Then, gradually, things became clear: old beams, cobwebs, tracks of children’s footprints on the dusty floor. Their own footprints? No, of course not, couldn’t be, not after all these years. Other children came here now. She put her foot next to one of the prints, marvelling at the difference in size. Toby, meanwhile, was expressing amazement at having to duck to avoid the beams.
Because this place had been the scene of so many forbidden adventures, an air of excitement still clung to it, in spite of the dingy surroundings. She went across to the window and peered out through a hole in the wall. ‘I wonder what it was like to work here.’
Toby came across and stood beside her. ‘Pretty good hell, I should think. Noise and dust.’
He was right of course; when the wheel turned the whole place must have shook. She turned to him. ‘What do you think –?’
He grabbed her arms and pulled her towards him. Crushed against his chest, hardly able to breathe, she laughed and struggled, taking this for the start of some childish game, but then his lips fastened on to hers with a groping hunger that shocked her into stillness. His tongue thrust between her lips, a strong, muscular presence. She felt his chin rough against her cheek, the breadth of his chest and shoulders, not that round, androgynous, childish softness that had sometimes made them seem like two halves of a single person. She started to struggle again, really struggle, but his hand came up and cupped her breast and she felt herself softening, flowing towards him, as if something hard and impacted in the pit of her stomach had begun to melt.
And then, abruptly, he pushed her away.
‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Sorry, sorry . . .’
She couldn’t speak. How was it possible that anybody, in a single moment, could stumble into a chasm so deep there was no getting out of it?
‘Look, you go back,’ he said. ‘I’ll come home later.’
Automatically, she turned to go, but then remembered the river and turned back.
‘No, go on, I’ll be all right,’ he said.
‘They’ll wonder what’s happened if I show up on my own.’
‘Say you felt ill.’
‘And you went on and left me? Don’t think so. No, come on, we’ve got to go back together.’
He nodded, surrendering the decision to her, and that shocked her almost more than the kiss. He was two years older, and a boy. He had always led.
All the way home, treading in his footsteps, aware, as she’d never been before, of the movement of muscles in his back and legs, she was trying to tame the incident. Incident. But it wasn’t an incident, it was a catastrophe that had ripped a hole in the middle of her life. But then the flash of honesty passed, and she began again to contain, to minimize, to smooth over, to explain. A brotherly hug, nothing to make a fuss about, a kiss that had somehow gone a tiny bit wrong. That was all. Best forgotten. And as for her reaction: shock, fear, and something else, something she hadn’t got a name for; that was best forgotten too.
Her thoughts scrabbled for a footing. All the time, underneath, she was becoming more and more angry. For there was another possible explanation: that Toby had been conducting a rather nasty, schoolboy experiment to find out what it was like to be close, in that way, with a girl. But then, why would he need to do that? She knew perfectly well that young men had access to sexual experiences that girls like her knew nothing about. So why would he need to experiment on her?
She looked back over the last twenty-four hours: saw herself coming downstairs in the red dress, sitting at the dinner table boasting about having an admirer. Had it seemed to him that she was moving away, leaving him? His reaching out for her had felt a bit like that. He’d grabbed her the way a drowning man grabs a log.
By the time they got back to the house, she’d developed a headache, the beginnings of a migraine perhaps. She clutched at the excuse of illness and ran upstairs to her room, passing her mother on the stairs, but not stopping to speak.
‘What’s the matter with Elinor?’ Mother asked Toby.
‘Not feeling very well. Bit too much sun, I think.’
That made her angry too: the cool, rational, accepted explanation which emphasized her weakness, not his. She slammed her bedroom door, stood with her back to it and then, slowly, as if she had to force a passage through her throat, she began to cry: ugly, wrenching sobs that made her a stranger to herself.
Elinor missed lunch, but went downstairs for dinner, because she knew her absence would only arouse curiosity, and perhaps concern. Part of her expected, even hoped, that Toby would have made some excuse to return to London, but no, there he was, laughing and talking, just as he normally did. Though perhaps drinking rather more than usual.
She made an effort, chatting to her father, ignoring her mother and Rachel, flirting outrageously with Tim, no longer the little schoolgirl sister-in-law. Oh, no. Looking round the table, she resolved that never again would she impersonate the girl they still thought she was.
Toby didn’t look at her from beginning to end of the meal, but she made herself speak to him. Where the children were concerned, her mother was an acute observer, and though she’d never in a million years guess the truth, she’d notice the tension between herself and Toby if they weren’t talking and assume they’d argued. She wouldn’t rest till she found out what it was about, so a quarrel would have to be invented, and in that imaginary dispute Mother would side with Toby, and once more Elinor would be in the wrong. Somehow or other Elinor was going to have to get through the rest of the evening without arousing suspicion.
After dinner, she suggested cards. She knew Father would back her up: he loved his family but their conversation bored him. So the table was set up, partners chosen and all conversation was thereby at an end. Toby dealt the cards, smiled in her direction once or twice, but without meeting her eyes. Or was she imagining the change in him? Even now a little, niggling worm of doubt remained. Was she being – dread word – hysterical? Her mother had accused her of that often enough in the past. Elinor knew that even if there were any family discussion of the incident she would be made to feel entirely in the wrong. But there would be no discussion.
So the evening dragged on, until ten o’clock when she was able to plead the remains of a headache and retire early to bed.
Once in her room, she threw the window wide open, but didn’t switch on the lamp. No point inviting moths into the room, though she didn’t dislike them, and certainly wasn’t terrified of them as Rachel was. She thought she looked a bit like a moth herself, fluttering to and fro in front of the mirror as she undressed and brushed her hair. It was too hot for a nightdress; she needed to feel cool, clean sheets against her skin. Only they didn’t stay cool. She threw them off, looked down at the white mounds of her breasts, and pressed her clenched fists hard into the pit of her stomach where she’d felt that treacherous melting. Never again. She would never, never, let her body betray her in that way again. A little self-consciously, she began to cry, but almost at once gave up in disgust. What had happened was too awful for tears. She’d been frightened of him and he hadn’t cared: Toby, who’d always protected her. She saw his face hanging over her, the glazed eyes, the groping, sea- anemone mouth; he hadn’t looked like Toby at all. And then, when he pulled her against him, she’d felt –
Downstairs, a door opened. Voices: people wishing each other goodnight. Footsteps: coming slowly and heavily, or quickly and lightly, up the stairs. The floorboards grumbled under the pressure of so many feet. Two thuds, seconds apart: one of the men taking his shoes off. Then silence, gradually deepening, until at last the old house curled up around the sleepers, and slept too.
Not a breath of wind. A fringe of ivy leaves – black against the moonlight – surrounded the open window, but not one of them stirred. Normally, even on a still night, there’d be some noise. A susurration of leaves, sounding so like the sea that sometimes she drifted off to sleep pretending she was lying on a beach with nothing above her but the stars. No hope of that tonight. An owl hooted, once, twice, then silence again, except for the whisper of blood in her ears.
Was Toby lying awake like her? No, he’d drunk so much wine at dinner he’d be straight off to sleep. Imagining his untroubled sleep – Toby’s breath hardly moving the sheet that covered him – became a kind of torment. After a while, it became intolerable. She had to do something. Reaching for her nightdress, she got out of bed and let herself quietly out of her room.
On the landing she stopped and listened: a squeal of bedsprings as somebody turned over; her father’s fractured snore. She tiptoed along the corridor, avoiding the places where she knew the floorboards creaked. She’d made this groping journey so often in the past: the unimaginably distant past when she and Toby had been best friends as well as brother and sister. He’d shielded her from Mother’s constant carping, the comparisons with Rachel that were never in her favour, the chill of their father’s absence. And now, for some unfathomable reason, he’d left her to face all that on her own.
Outside his door, she hesitated. There was still time to turn back, only she couldn’t, not now, she was too angry. Something had to be done to dent his complacency. She turned the knob and slipped in. Once inside the room, she held her breath. Listened again. Yes, he was asleep, though not snoring: slow, calm, steady breaths. Not a care in the world.
She crossed to the bed and looked down at him. Like her, he’d left the curtains open; his skin in the moonlight had the glitter of salt. Leaning towards him, she felt his breath on her face. She knew there was something she wanted to do, but she didn’t know what it was. Jerk him awake? Shock him out of that infuriatingly peaceful, deep sleep? Yes, but how? There was a jug of water on the washstand near the bed. She twined her fingers round the handle, raised it high above her head . . .
And then, just as she was about to pour, he opened his eyes. He didn’t move, or speak, or try to get out of the way. He simply lay there, looking up at her. In the dimness, his light-famished pupils flared to twice their normal size, and forever afterwards, when she tried to recapture this moment, she remembered his eyes as black. Neither of them spoke. Slowly, she lowered the jug.
The chink, as she set it down on the marble stand, seemed to release him. He reached out, closed his hand gently round her wrist, and pulled her down towards him.
'A brilliant stylist . . . Barker delves unflinchingly into the enduring mysteries of human motivation'
— Sunday Telegraph
'Barker is a writer of crispness and clarity and an unflinching seeker of the germ of what it means to be human'
— The Herald
'Barker is brilliant on the conflicts between art, love and war'
— Marie Claire
'Barker writes . . . with great tenderness and insight, and a daring to forgo simple resolutions'
— Independent on Sunday
'Once again Barker skilfully moves between past and present, seamlessly weaving fact and fiction into a gripping narrative'
— Sunday Telegraph
'Everyone in Toby's Room is on the run from their real selves. Some of her characters wear real masks - hiding their injuries behind painted sheets of tin. Others seek to present carefully sculpted views of themselves to the world. All, though, are in a constant state of flux, unsure of their personalities, emotions and sexuality. This gives the book an unsettling air - and Barker, as she's often proved before, does disquiet unusually well. Even in the most apparently innocuous scene, there's invariably some little worm twisting disturbingly away'
— Evening Standard
'Heart-rendering return to the Great War . . . I'd forgotten what a superb stylist she is, at once forensically observant and imaginatively sublime... On every level, Toby's Room anatomises a world where extreme emotion shatters the boundaries of identity, behaviour, gender. Through the mask of Apollo bursts an omnipresent Dionysus'
'Crisp, vivid prose'
'Barker, rightly, has never bothered with period detail. Her characters feel modern because their views were modern at the time. She does not try and recapture the past but instead recasts it in their present'
— Financial Times
'Barker is a natural storyteller and the book pulls you in from the opening paragraphs. Her sensitive, unsensational, remarkably detailed handing of the hospital scenes is hugely impressive, as is her mastery of suspense, with the reader in the closing chapters torn between wanting to linger over the sheer pleasure of the writing and the desire to rush towards the end to discover how it all pans out'
— Daily Mail
'A gripping and moving exploration of the lasting effects of war'
— Woman & Home
'A fascinating drama about wartime identities'
'Strong, truthful and beautifully controlled... Magnificent'
— Saga Magazine
'A moving story of love and loss, surgery and art'
— Marie Claire
'In among the period tea parties and life-drawing lessons at the Slade are vivid, hideous descriptions of wounded men and shattered lives, as well as the strange mix of patriotic pride and repulsion that war evokes'