Toby’s Room and the art of explication

Kate Braithwaite

In the first of our series of features looking at the language of the six historical novels shortlisted for this year’s Walter Scott prize, we uncover complexity of meaning in Pat Barker’s deceptively straightforward style.

tobysroom“Barker has never been a thrilling stylist, and can often sound ordinary: “thoughts floated to the surface of her mind and burst like bubbles”; “the ache of his absence was like nothing she’d ever experienced before”. But you don’t go to her for fine language, you go to her for plain truths, a driving storyline and a clear eye, steadily facing the history of our world.”

This comment on Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room appeared in The Guardian in August 2012 and while it is true that Barker does not serve up rich language, the unflinching plainness of her writing is at the heart of the novel’s central theme and concern.

toby3In Toby’s Room, three artists – Elinor Brooke, Paul Tennant and Kit Neville – struggle to find visual expression for the devastation of the times in which they live: a clear parallel to Barker’s own serial endeavours to convey in literature the realities of World War One.

Kit Neville, horribly injured and always outspoken, asks Paul Tarrant how he plans to paint about the War:

“It’s all fairly straightforward. No bodies. You can show the wounded, but only if they’re receiving treatment. I think in practice that means bandages.”

“So no wounds, either?”

Paul shrugged. “I don’t know. It hardly applies to me.”

“Well, I intend to push it as far as I can.”

“Why, what’s the point? If you push it too far they won’t let you show it. Besides, you can get round it…”

“You can. Your landscapes are bodies.”

“Yes, I know. Don’t worry, it’s intended. I know what I’m doing. It’s the Fisher King. The wound in his thigh?”


Paul looked surprised. Even by Neville’s standards that was forceful.

“That’s where the wound is. Idiot. He was castrated.”

“Oh, all right, then, balls. The point is, the wound and the wasteland are the same thing. They aren’t metaphors for each other, it’s closer than that.”

Neville is an advocate for honesty and truth. His own sentences are short and to the point. And in turn, Barker is as blunt and plain as her character would wish her to be. Paul, a more reserved character, may not voice his thoughts as Neville would, but when he sees first Kit’s injuries, the description is stark.

“Paul had seen head wounds that left the brain exposed, missing jaws, eyes dangling on to cheeks – the lot. And yet, when Neville finally turned to face him, his heart thumped. Neville joked about the Elephant Man, but he didn’t look anything like an elephant. He looked like a man with a penis where his face should be: obscene, grotesque, ridiculous.”

Like the wounded in Paul’s paintings, Kit must be bandaged. When he is able to leave hospital he must wear a mask, ironically, with the face of Rupert Brooke.

But it is Elinor’s experiences, visiting Neville in hospital to try and find out the details of her brother Toby’s death, that speak most directly to the challenges of expressing the realities of war in art. Her old tutor is drawing facial injuries to assist surgeons with their attempts at reconstruction and she agrees to work with him. Of the man she is drawing, Elinor notes:

“As he spoke, you could see his tongue through a hole in his cheek, muscular and hideously long, threshing up and down as he struggled to form the words.

TonksTonks started to draw. Elinor forced herself to keep looking from the face to the drawing and back again, but she found meeting the man’s left eye difficult, not because it was damaged but because it was intact and full of fear. This was a complete waste of time: she already knew she couldn’t do it. Confronted by this mess of torn muscle and splintered bone, nothing she’d learned about anatomy, whether at Slade or in the Dissecting Room, was the slightest use. “Drawing,” as Professor Tonks never tired of telling his students, “is and explication of the form.” Well, you can’t explicate what you don’t understand.”

Barker, like the artists in her novel, is a skilled and talented writer with an arsenal of literary flourishes and linguistic furbelows in her toolbox. But just as oil paints will not serve Tonks and Elinor, rich language would not serve in Toby’s Room. Barker is seeking the truth, trying to explicate World War One, and she choses to do so unflinchingly and bravely. Tonks describes drawing as “the least forgiving medium an artist could work in, calculated to expose every flaw in draughtsmanship” and by choosing to keep her language simple, Barker might open herself up to criticism.

But she also brings us as close to the realities of war as any writer ever as. In Elinor’s words, she gives us, “the truth, I think, or as close as I can get it.”


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Posted by Kate Braithwaite

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