Monday, December 31, 2012

Reconstruction

Four years ago, I listened to Pat Barker's Life Class, about the effect of World War I on a group of young English artists.  Two men, working class Paul Tarrant and privileged Kit Neville, vie for the affections of Elinor Brooke as both are drawn into the vortex of trench warfare.  Toby's Room expands our knowledge of this triangle, while adding a third man to the mix: Elinor's beloved brother Toby.

In 1912, Elinor is down for the weekend from London and her studies at the Slade School of Fine Art at the same time her older brother is taking a few days off from his medical studies. On a hot morning, the two take a familiar walk from their childhood home and exchange a passionate kiss. Elinor is horrified but intrigued by this encounter, and -- as we learn later on -- it didn't end with that kiss.  Then, we skip five years to 1917. From Life Class, we know that Paul and Elinor have had an affair and that Paul has returned to England, wounded, from the front. But Elinor soon learns that Toby has been declared "Missing, Believed Dead," and -- bereft -- she entreats Paul to help her find out what really happened.

She's discovered a note in her brother's belongings explaining that Kit Neville will know what happened.  Kit has returned from France grievously wounded, and enters Queen's Hospital, where patients like him -- those with severe facial wounds -- are treated. The plastic surgeons depend on pastel images of the wounds and their reconstruction drawn by Henry Tonks, surgeon and life class instructor at the Slade (and former academic nemesis of Kit and Paul), as they attempt to return these scarred soldiers to a semblance of normal appearance.  Against his better judgment, Paul visits Kit at the hospital, finding him not terribly receptive to Paul's tentative questions about what happened to Toby, but eventually we learn the story.

This is one of those novels about people who are not very nice. Elinor is an entitled bitch, Paul is a sap (where she's concerned), Kit was a bitter narcissist before his face was blown off, and Toby ... well, I pegged Toby's "problem" (and its solution) very early on. Barker has an obvious passion for the subject of art and the ever expanding ripples of World War I that she's used to greater effect than she does here.  The most interesting character is Kit, whose morphine-induced hallucinations and pain-filled time at Queen's are vivid and compelling.  But I found this novel to be two books that didn't mix very well together: The story of four not particularly pleasant people working out some not terribly interesting problems, and the story of soldiers in unbearable suffering and the efforts of a few dedicated people to ease that suffering.

The book reviewer from the Guardian newspaper tells me that Elinor is a fiction-alized version of the artist Dora Carrington (whom I only know through the Emma Thompson movie), but even though this made me slightly curious about whether and how Barker will continue to write about her, it didn't make me like her any more.

The book is narrated by Nicola Barber. I enjoyed listening to her pleasant reading voice describe a lush English meadow, a wild storm on the Suffolk coast, and the horrifying work of the stretcher bearers as they stumble through No Man's Land searching for the wounded.  She has a perfect upper class accent for the insufferable Elinor and a natural regional accent for Paul Tarrant who comes from Northern England.  She has the opportunity to toss in a few words from the Antipodes as the primary plastic surgeon is a Kiwi.  Her best work is with the character of Kit Neville.  His physical suffering is apparent in her voice, but also evident is the difficulty any person would have attempting to speak with part of his face missing. Barber speaks understandably, while projecting a completely differently pace and sound from any of the other characters.

While Life Class and Toby's Room share characters, they don't need to be read in "order"as their timelines overlap -- Life Class takes place in the gap between the 1912 and 1917 of Toby's Room, and the latter sort of wraps up Elinor and Paul's unfinished business from the former.  (It might be kind of interesting to read them in reverse order actually.)  I chose this book from the recent Solid Gold Reviewer offerings from the Audiobook Jukebox because I remembered liking Life Class so much.  Looking back, though, I think it was the narrator I liked. Barber is a good narrator and I'd like to hear her again, but she doesn't give me the same vivid aural recollection I got from Life Class' Russell Boulter.

Thanks to AudioGO for a copy of this audiobook.

[Official War artists had very clear restrictions on what they could and couldn't portray in their art. This is Henry Tonks' "An Advanced Dressing Station," painted in 1918 and in the public domain. It resides in the Imperial War Museum and this image was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Toby's Room by Pat Barker
Narrated Nicola Barber
AudioGO, 2012.  9:08

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