Pat Barker doesn’t get much time for reading while in the middle of writing her own work. But alongside praising Hilary Mantel she also admits: “The other thing that I absolutely love reading is diaries, that sort of day-to-day capturing the actual moment. I really love this feeling of being with the writer in a particular day, in a particular mood.” However, she laughs when I ask if she keeps one herself: “I love diaries but I do think they tend to be unexploded bombs in a family.”
Barker, perhaps best known for her Regeneration trilogy, returns to the First World War with her latest book, Toby’s Room, and it is pervaded by that feeling of “unexploded bombs”: those sinister, suspended moments before violence; secrets hidden within families, and the mistaken assumption that the truth can bring certainty.
Barker says she was drawn again to the period because of its unflinching relevance: “I think just the magnitude of the slaughter and the fact that people went on and on and on sending young men onto those battlefields, and the awful way the absolutely unthinkable became taken for granted day by day, that tells us something about human beings.”
In the new novel Elinor, a student at the Slade School of Fine Art, becomes obsessed with finding out the exact circumstances of her brother Toby’s death in the trenches. The pair are connected in an uneasy way, described as looking more like twins than brother and sister, and as being “the only members of the family who kept no secrets from each other”. After his death, Elinor retreats from her London life and relationships, painting bleak landscapes, and at first refusing to engage her artistic talents with the reality of war.
Barker’s starting point for the book – which revisits some of the characters of her earlier work, Life Class – was finding out about an archive of drawings and paintings produced by surgeon and Slade tutor Henry Tonks, recording the facial injuries of soldiers recovering or undergoing treatment once back from the front. It is this task that finally engages Elinor in the war – and sets up another central question of the novel – whether art can come from battle.
For Barker, Tonks’ records and artworks such as Goya’s “The Disasters of War” are linked through having been created with no thought to appealing to an outside audience. She says: “There is a desire to tell the truth, even if it can't be shared with an audience. And I think that gets to the nature of writing and other forms of art, in that it is something you would do, even if nobody was going to see it. You would do it because that was what you do, that is your way of trying to understand the world.” Barker became fascinated by the idea, she says, of “the image that can’t be shown”.
Barker herself wrote “for a long time” without being published, receiving the news that she finally had a publisher for her novel Union Street while hosting her daughter’s sixth birthday party. “It was a very nice feeling, with all the mayhem and the clearing up, with this kind of bubble of happiness inside me all the time.” Barker set Union Street in Northern England, and says it was the first time she had attempted to write about a world she knew, something similar to the one she grew up in, having given up on the idea of being published. Barker says: “It's not guessing the market, it's not trying to please; it's not trying to impress, it's just your own basic need to express the truth as you see it, and that is where you will find your original voice.”
Toby’s Room has a number of central characters, though it is the feeling that no one can ever completely understand another that runs most strongly, even as the narrative exposes secrets and relationships develop. In an earlier part of the interview, Barker mentions the idea of the unknown impact single, seemingly insignificant moments can have – those incidences that can have “been working away in your mind in an almost wordless subterranean way”.
Barker says the book “begins in absence and ends in absence”, propelled by the missing Toby, as well as the missing patches of self-awareness and of trust in others that haunt Elinor. “I think Toby is a difficult character to write in some respects because he's only ever seen from outside,” says Barker, “and at the same time, I wanted the reader to have a very strong sense of the kind of person Toby was. Obviously you have to withhold the truth about how and why he died, right to the end of the book, and even then there is a sense of mystery.
“You've been told the truth, and yet the person telling the truth has a reason to lie, so even at the end you know a lot of the truth but you don't know the whole truth. I think that is very true of the way that we see other people-in the end, other people remain very opaque, even the ones we know and love most deeply.”
Barker offers a medical metaphor for the central dilemma in her novel: what happens when something cannot be forgotten, when trauma outlasts its explanation? She says: “In the end, some things can't be resolved, they just have to be lived round, and they form a kind of cyst, like your body will form a kind of cyst around a foreign object.” In Toby’s Room, the truth becomes a foreign object; an unexploded bomb.
Toby's Room is out now, published by Hamish Hamilton.