Toby’s Room by Pat Barker was the latest read at the library book club where I am a volunteer coordinator. It generated an interesting discussion on a range of topics.
Toby’s Room is set during the first world war. Toby and Elinor are siblings and have a very close relationship. Toby goes off to be a war medic and is declared missing in action. Elinor is desperate to find out what has happened to him.
Toby was a papyrus twin. This means his twin died in the womb and as Toby continued to grow he compressed and flattened the dead foetus. So we talked about the effect on a surviving twin when his sibling dies at or before birth. One of our group surprised us by revealing that she was a twin and her sister was stillborn. Throughout her life she has always felt something was missing and she’s also felt guilty that she may have caused the death of her sister by ‘stealing all the goodness’ in the womb. She remembers in her childhood this being said aloud in her presence.
Many of the characters in Toby’s Room are artists and eventually Elinor gets a job drawing wounded soldiers who have terrible, disfiguring facial wounds. The hospital where she works and the artist and surgeon that she works with are real people and details can be found in the Gillies Archives. So we talked about the horrors of war and the advancement of surgical techniques.
We also talked about a scene in the book where Toby’s uniform is sent home in a parcel. When it is opened the smell of the battlefield fills the nostrils. It’s difficult to imagine the terrible emotions this would evoke in a family.
In our group the book got a mostly positive response. We thought the first half was particularly good and enthralling. The second half seemed to be dragged out a little and some thought the ending was too sudden. The reader does find out what happened to Toby – but I won’t spoil it by telling you!
We all agreed that we had learned something new about World War I from the book and that it had definitely been worth reading. If you’re in a book group, Toby’s Room is a good choice.
And if you’re thinking of writing rather than reading a novel, you might be interested in this Online Novel Writing Master Class with Bonus Manuscript Critique for £29 from Amazon Local.