'Painting numbed the pain; nothing else did.'
Elinor is anxious to seek out the truth about her brother Toby’s death during the war; 'She knew so little. What did 'Missing, Believed Killed' actually mean?' Despite writing several times to Kit in the hope of discovering more information as to how exactly Toby died, she receives no reply.
Kit Neville then returns from France. Through him the author conveys how the confusing memories and images of war can haunt the mind: 'All sorts of shadowy figures crossed the suburbs of Neville's mind, or crept out of the darkness and pressed in on him.'
Kit is still reluctant to reveal anything more to Elinor about Toby's death, so Elinor turns to her former love Paul Tarrant, another art student, and asks for his help speaking to Kit. She seeks some form of closure regarding Toby, some way to even begin to move on from his death, having been such a key part of her life, and sharing a dark secret.
The author illustrates how art becomes linked with the surgery being undertaken to reconstruct the damaged faces of the soldiers. A record is being created of those wounded, with Elinor becoming involved in these portraits. I felt moved by the immense courage of the soldiers, and feel that the author writes both authoritatively and compassionately about the mental and physical scars of war.
The inclusion of real people from this period in history, Henry Tonks and Harold Gillies, adds weight to the authenticity of the story's backdrop, and caused me to read more about them and their work after finishing the novel.
I was struck at times by the beauty and aptness of the prose; the following passage in particular stood out for me, when relating how Paul views the countryside and weather back home, his impressions all bear the stamp of the war:
'Everything he saw, everything he felt, seemed to be filtered through his memories of the front line, as if a think wash had been laid over his perceptions of this scene. Columns of sleety rain marched across the fields while, in the distance, grey clouds massed for another attack.'
I felt for Paul as he seeks to find a place for himself in Elinor's heart, wondering if this is a lost cause.
A fascinating, intelligent and beautifully written historical portrait of people and relationships, war and destruction, love and loss, under the shadow and impact of the First World War.
In Toby's Room, the author revisits characters that featured in her earlier novel Life Class, though I would add that a reading of that is not necessary to understand and enjoy this novel.
Published by Hamish Hamilton on 16th August 2012.
Thanks very much to the publisher for kindly sending a review copy of this novel.