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Pat Barker and the Silences of War

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Pat Barker is back, with another soul-rending novel set in England during World War I. Regeneration is one of my favorite books ever, and the Regeneration trilogy of books, telling the story of World War I poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, will forever be seared into my memory.

Toby's Room, out this month, again uses historical references (women allowed in to study at The Slade School of Fine Art in the early 1900s) and real-life personages (Henry Tonks, artist, surgeon, and portraitist of men disfigured by war injuries) alongside fictional characters to illustrate the true costs and burdens of war, loss, memory, and survival.

Using a woman as a centerpiece this time, Barker plumbs the depths of human weaknesses and strengths, and examines the hypocrisies that become necessary -- or at least unavoidable -- during mankind's worst manifestation of will: war.

Elinor Brooke, ambitious artist, wants nothing to do with war. But when her brother Toby, with whom she shares an oppressive secret (in a family of secret-keepers) goes off to serve as a medical officer, and a friend from school serves under his command, her two worlds -- family and art -- collide. Toby turns out to have more than one secret to keep, this time from her.

What is the price of silence? Early in the book, Barker observes, "All her life, Elinor had been brought up not to know things, but not knowing didn't keep you safe." In a world that makes no sense, and in fact offers more visions of nightmares than of hope, it is only the knowing of things that may finally allow Elinor to reach the bottom of her well of despair -- and her rising from despair to become possible. Telling the story, relieving the silences: it is never enough to be heard, but sometimes it is all we have to offer, and all we have to take.

Toby's Room is another great read from Barker, created out of her bare-boned style, hard and sparse and keen; made strong with her sharp observations and descriptions; and rendered unforgettable through her full-bodied characters and unflinching portrayal of war, with all its enforced silences and brutal consequences.