Since Regeneration in 1991, which reimagined the lives of the war poets, Pat Barker's most powerful novels have charted the psychic and social reverberations of World War I. In Toby's Room, the sequel to Life Class (2007), Barker revisits the world in which she's most at home: one of hats, horses and handwritten letters, in which a woman could still shock her family by cutting her hair short and enrolling at art school — and into which the war arrives as a slow cataclysm, described without sentiment or grandiosity.
The novel begins in 1912 as the beautiful and talented Elinor Brooke (loosely based on the Bloomsbury painter Dora Carrington) struggles to resist marriage and to be taken seriously as an artist. During a stifling weekend at her childhood home, Elinor suffers two destabilizing shocks: Her brother, Toby, her only respite in a family hostile to her artistic ambition, suddenly violates their close relationship; immediately afterward, she learns that Toby was a twin, whose female sibling died in the womb. The dual explosion of sex and death within the superficially tranquil home is a familiar theme for Barker, in whose novels the past lays land mines along the paths of characters' lives.
Feeling "vulnerable; an animal leaving a trail of blood behind in the snow," Elinor flees back to her studies at London's Slade School of Art. There she meets Paul Tarrant, the central character in Life Class. She realizes that he hasn't yet adjusted to his new, liberated environment: "She'd noticed before how surprised men were when girls spoke directly or behaved confidently. Almost as if they were so used to simpering and giggling they didn't know how to react." Yet the gender divisions that Elinor wants to break down are so heavily reinforced during the war that she and Paul cannot remain allies.
While Paul accepts a commission as a war artist, Elinor is determined to keep art and war separate. Eventually, however, the "combine harvester" of war cuts too close to be ignored. When her friend and former lover Kit Neville arrives at Queen's Hospital with facial injuries, Elinor is persuaded to work there as a medical illustrator, alongside her former Slade drawing master, Henry Tonks. The real Tonks, a surgeon before he became an artist, also made pastel portraits of the injured men, which he refused to exhibit during his lifetime. Here, Elinor is given a glimpse of the portraits and struggles to understand what she's seeing: "She found her gaze shifting continuously between torn flesh and splintered bone and the eyes of the man who had to suffer it. There was no point of rest; no pleasure in the exploration of a unique individual."
Barker is peerless at evoking the atmosphere of the trenches and of wartime London, with its gray tea and mystery-meat pies, yet that atmosphere hangs heavily on this novel. At one point Elinor observes in her diary "a frenzy of midges around my bare arms, little frantic things, as if the air had turned to glass and they were trying to get out." The description serves as an apt metaphor for the novel's characters, who frequently seem as if they are moving under glass, never quite breaking into life. The story's inconclusive ending invites a third installment, to round out a new trilogy; until that point, it's a tantalizing, unfinished canvas.