Here Pat Barker returns to the theme of repairing the Great War’s soldiers. In Regeneration she dealt with shell shock, or what was then known as the cowards’ disease, and the work of Dr WH Rivers whose patients were given innovative therapies before being returned to the frontline — famously in Siegfried Sassoon’s case.
This time it is the turn of Dr Henry Tonks, the artist and surgeon who was famous for rebuilding the faces of men shredded by shell fire, to provide part of the back drop to this story.
The Slade School of Art provides the other, and its outflow of ‘Sladettes’ make up the principal characters. Here we have art and anatomy in sinewy symbiosis, with war providing the urgency for bohemian excess.
Elinor is a young art student in 1912 and experiences the darkening shadow of war and its effect on her relationships with her family, friends and lover. She has a secret that only she and Toby, her complicated brother, can share.
He volunteers for military service, and takes his half of the family conundrum to France. He is brave, and saves lives. He wins the Military Cross and, in the midst of the mayhem, the mud and the blood, he drives himself and his men unreasonably hard.
But then he disappears in that most agonising of war office descriptors ‘missing believed killed’. There is no disfigurement; there is nothing. What happened to Toby?
Elinor is invited to work for Tonks, where she hones her skills by drawing the faces of men with pedicles suspended from their faces like the Elephant Man.
Kit, a wounded stretcher bearer and a cantankerous former fellow art student arrives at the hospital. He is now really angry as he has no nose — and admits to being with Toby at the time of his death.
Elinor’s quest is to extract the truth from someone who has no motivation to reveal it to her. She asks a former lover, Paul, who may have a greater influence over the wounded Kit to help her resolve the mystery.
The love story may not be of Faulksian intensity, but each relationship meticulously unravels as hideous flesh is reassembled. “... they cut a strip from my chest and stick the other end, well ... wherever it has to go”, Kit says when he takes off his Rupert Brooke lookalike mask, the most popular protection from public view.
Pat Barker cleverly interweaves the real characters of the day, and even gives the Bloomsbury set a walk on part in the guise of “VB and Mrs Woolf”. There’s even a whiff of three in a bed, as you would expect in such company.