Toby's Room is a sequel of sorts to Barker's book Life Class, although the relationship between the two books is not quite that straightforward. Toby's Room follows the same characters (a group of art students during the First World War) and develops the same themes as Life Class, but in terms of chronology, Life Class seems to be nestled inside Toby's Room. The first 70 or so pages of Toby's Room take place before the events of Life Class, giving us some back story that we never got in the earlier book. Toby's Room then jumps ahead by about five years--a gap of time in which the entire plot of Life Class occurs. The fact that my memory of Life Class was not perfectly fresh made this a little weird. I think it would be entirely possible to read Toby's Room as a stand-alone book, but because I knew that it wasn't I spent a lot of time trying to remember things from Life Class and fit the pieces of the two books together. And it was a little bit strange because there were certain parts of Toby's Room that really didn't seem to fit with my (admittedly imperfect) memory of Life Class.
Also, I was surprised to find that those first 70 pages--the part of the book that fills in the back story of Elinor Brooke and her complicated relationship with her brother Toby--were my favorite part of the book. Loved the characterization of Elinor, and the relationship between the siblings was really compelling to me. In the latter two-thirds of the book, all that stuff gets shoved aside by the war. And of course that's accurate--relationships were interrupted and other concerns shoved aside, but I just couldn't get quite as interested in the material that followed as I had been in the first section.
And now, the obligatory statement that I make about any work of Barker's that isn't the Regeneration trilogy: Well, it was very good, but it's no Regeneration. Not many books are, of course. One of the things that I find so amazing about Regeneration is the fact that structurally it's very fragmented, yet it feels so impeccably seamless. Toby's Room is less fractured, but lacks the sense of being one perfectly integrated whole. As with Regeneration, a major theme of Toby's Room is the way the war infiltrated pretty much every aspect of everyone's life, whether they fought or not. But Regeneration seemed to bring that idea to life more fully, while in this book the war seems a bit more like backdrop for some interpersonal melodramas that could have been played out in a variety of circumstances.
On the plus side: the details. Holy god. Barker is such a master at using one exactly perfect, meticulously chosen observation to spark any scene into life. God, the economy. Blows my mind every fucking time. The strong, no-nonsense sentences. I mean. I could die. I mentioned above that the book was engrossing, and it was. There are a couple of intriguing elements that thread through the narrative and lend it some good page-turning tension. I had a lot of "Just one more chapter!" moments while reading this book, and it's been quite a long time since I've felt that way about something I'm reading. That alone was worth it, even if the book as a whole was imperfect.
I would be somewhat surprised if this is the end of this particular story. There is a central question that drives the last two-thirds of the book, and we do get the answer to that question, but I'm not sure we've gotten the full answer. There are some nagging elements that prevent the resolution from feeling truly satisfying (for me, at least), and a few clues that seem to me to be paving the way for this to be another trilogy.
And this morning I went to the library and came home with Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada, as recommended by celeritas_3e8. So that's next!