Interview: Pat Barker, author of new book Toby’s Room

Pat Barker’s sequel to Life Class returns her to First World War Britain for a tale of two siblings. She talks to Lee Randall

Five years ago, when I spoke to Pat Barker about Life Class, she hinted about a follow-up, and now there’s Toby’s Room, which reintroduces us to the young art students, doctors and soldiers of the earlier novel.

Much has happened since. Three and a half years ago, Barker’s husband David passed away. She nursed him full-time throughout his final two years, which partly explains the longer than usual gap between novels. Time has been no less unkind to her characters, though time is a trickster. The new novel is set in 1912 and 1917, sandwiching the earlier book, set in 1914.

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Now Barker focuses most intently on Elinor Brooke’s relationship to her brother, the titular Toby, and on the brash war artist Kit Neville, who has been horribly disfigured and sent back to St Mary’s hospital, which specialised in facial wounds.

There he encounters his former art teacher, the redoubtable – and very real – Henry Tonks. Still caught between Kit 
and Elinor is her erstwhile lover, Paul Tarrant.

Over a pot of tea in a Durham hotel, Barker tells me, “When we last spoke I didn’t know whether there was going to be more than one sequel – but then I didn’t know that with the Regeneration trilogy, either. I don’t see you can get the feeling, until you get to the end of a book, about whether there’s life in the characters. Do they come to a resting place or are they still in the middle of something? Part of Life Class could be read differently in the light of this book, particularly the relationship between Toby and Elinor. That scene, quite trivial in Life Class, where she walks through the conservatory in this rather sexy black dress – of course if you re-read that in light of Toby’s Room, it becomes much more highly charged.”

Barker and I discuss how much to say about Toby’s Room. Ultimately, I decide, no-one’s experience will be ruined knowing that the siblings’ relationship includes a moment of sexual intimacy. But did Barker know that when writing Life Class?

“I didn’t, but I sensed something going on – that Toby’s friend Andrew is noticing the very strong physical relationship, and Toby is slightly taken aback by the sight of Elinor in this unusually grown-up and very sexy dress. There is a frisson. Incest is something strongly narcissistic people might do, or people who are insecure with the other sex, because you are making love to yourself.”

Playing tricks with time, she says, was a deliberate choice, to distance these books from the Regeneration Trilogy. “Also, it corresponds with our own experience. Something happens, and in the light of that, we almost re-experience the past. Suddenly a door opens – in the past you didn’t even realise it was a door! I wanted to achieve that impression.

“This is much more Elinor’s book, but also Kit’s. An early reader who likes Kit very much said that as soon as he’s on the stage, more or less the other characters cease to exist. Not that they’re weak, but they are just not capable of standing up to Kit Neville. Mainly you’re disliking him.”

I was also struck by the echo of Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, in her choice of title, not least because Elinor is on the fringes of the Bloomsbury set, which briefly appears in both novels, and Elinor herself is partially patterned on Dora Carrington. “Yes, it was deliberate, but I don’t know that it’s terribly meaningful – no, perhaps that’s not entirely true. In both books Elinor’s viewpoint on the war is a very inarticulate version of what Virginia Woolf thought about it.”

Elinor discusses the war with a conscientious objector, and recalls it in in her diary: “I said … as a woman, it didn’t concern me. To be honest, I was copying something I’d heard Mrs Woolf say last night … about how women are outside the political process and therefore the war’s got nothing to do with them. It sounded clever when she said it, and stupid when I repeated it.”

“That is always my problem with Elinor”, says Barker. “Her mission to ignore the war, to deny its importance, is not at all a trivial position, and yet it would be untrue to the character to give her the sort of intellectual clout needed to make it seem a perfectly intellectually respectable thing to do. It’s not my position, obviously, or I wouldn’t write so many books about the bloody thing! But it is a valid point of view. It’s not far away from the point of view of Yeats, when he left the war poets out of The 
Oxford Book of Modern Verse. She is saying, in effect, this is not a valid subject for art, just as Yeats said this is not a valid subject for poetry, and nobody thinks Yeats was an idiot. Though yes, I would disagree with him!”

Kit Neville, who was with Toby when he died, returns to Britain minus a nose and much of his face. Today he’d probably sign up for a face transplant, I suggest, though Barker is less certain. “For one thing there aren’t that many faces available. It would be intriguing to find out whether people are prepared to donate faces in the same way that they donate hearts, kidneys and livers. I think that would be a very hard thing for a lot of relatives, because the face is the identity, isn’t it?”

Thus any future book – at least one that moves on, chronologically – will find Kit confronting life with a new face. Barker is curious to discover what he makes of that. “It will be an approximation of what his face might have been.”

Which is quite pertinent, I say, since so many undergo the knife, and have that very experience. “In Durham we had a small exhibition of Tonk’s pastels of disfigured men. There was also an exhibition about the beauty industry – the woman with the face of a 50-year-old and the neck of a 90-year-old, a woman who had had her toes shortened so she could wear Jimmy Choo shoes. Walking around that exhibition of what people had chosen to do to themselves, and then seeing the Tonks pastels – the pastels cheered you up! It was fascinating the way that one set of images changed your response to the other set.”

Given the length of her career, and since we’re talking about how experiences change us, is there anything Barker’s written about that she now views in a different light? “There have been so many right angle turns in my career,” she says with a smile. “In the next book, or a next book, one character is a medium and I would like to go into that in more depth. It’s too easy to throw your hands in the air and say you don’t know how much is fraud. I’ve always done mediums from the outside. If you really try to get inside them, you have to start answering a few questions about what they think is going on in their lives.”

There are mediums in Barker’s family tree. “Indeed, insofar as the family had a religion, it was spiritualism. There were mediums, there were faith healers, the kind of faith healing where you take the illness into yourself and then try to cast it off. What fascinates me is that they were not frauds. They were not charging.”

Though on her own now, the pattern of her days hasn’t radically altered. “I still try to work in the mornings, but now the entire house has become a workplace. I’m not sure that’s entirely helpful! I work as hard as I can and then I get out. I walk into town. Or I will take my granddaughter and her puppy for a walk, and play with them, which is very relaxing. You have to give them your full concentration, so it gets the book out of your head for a while.”

As we’re winding down, bemoaning the low sales figures for literary fiction, Barker asks if I’ve read Fifty Shades of Grey, and whether I liked it. Yes, and very emphatically no, though I laughed myself senseless at how rubbish it is. “That’s what people say, that they laugh their heads off. How many comic writers would kill to hear two million say they laughed their heads off?” she muses without rancour.

What can I say? If I ruled the world, Barker’s body of work would be as widely read and enjoyed as that purveyed by the army of shlockmeisters.

Anyone care to join me in a cultural coup d’état?

• Toby’s Room by Pat Barker is published next week by Hamish Hamilton, priced £16.99. She is talking about the novel at the Edinburgh book festival tomorrow.