Sunday, June 19, 2011

Room ~ Emma Donoghue

**The second-to-last full paragraph contains spoilers.  Watch out.**

As soon as I heard about Emma Donoghue's acclaimed novel, Room (thank you, book blogging community, without whom I would not have known of it), I knew that I had to read it.  I'm ashamed to say that I don't pay much attention to the news, largely because it angers me and I have a hard time disengaging myself.  However, there is the occasional news story that grips me so much that I can't read enough about it, often rereading the same information from different sources in the hopes of a new detail.  One that comes instantly to mind is the story of Foxy Knoxy, an American student in Italy who was found guilty of murdering her flatmate.  Another more relevant story is the Fritzl case, in which a man held his daughter (and their ensuing children) trapped in a dungeon in the basement of the house where he lived with his wife.  It would appear that there is something wrong with my head, because these are both prime examples of why I avoid the news, but there you have it.  At least it explains my compulsion to read Room which, I was not surprised to learn after finishing the novel, was inspired by the Fritzl case.

This is one of those cases where the truth is stranger (or at least more disturbing) than fiction.  Room, though completely horrifying, is actually very toned down compared to it's real-life counterpart.  There's only one child, the woman's only been locked up for seven years, they are above ground and have a skylight through which they can see the sky, the ceiling is high enough that nobody has to stoop.  Interestingly, Old Nick seems to acknowledge this outside influence at one point, saying, "Aboveground, natural light, central air, it's a cut above some places, I can tell you" (69).  It's still not Barbie's Dream House, but Donoghue's choice to make it so much more human is interesting.  Would the extent of the horrors in the Fritzl case be too much for a reader to handle?  Does the experience of looking at the news from the outside in some way make it easier to deal with the horrors of the world than the experience of immersing oneself into fiction?  Quite possibly.

The novel itself was well-done.  Choosing the five-year old child as a narrator was inspired - it transforms the tiny cell in which he and his mother live into a complete world where Jack feels safe and is never bored, a place from which he never wants to leave (though this as much thanks to his mother's ingenuity as his own imagination).  Jack knows no other world except for what happens in the TV, and all of that is pretend.  Outside is only outerspace.  Though Jack is happy in his captivity, there is an undercurrent of loneliness to his narrative.  The room is Room, the wardrobe is Wardrobe, and so on.  They are referred to by gendered pronouns and spoken of as friends.  Jack never comments on the lack of other people in his world, though he seems to unconsciously acknowledge it by turning things into companions.

The mother-child relationship is so beautiful.  You could easily imagine a mother hating a child born to her of rape and captivity, but as Ma says, Jack saves her.  In Jack's five years of life, they've never been more than a few feet away from each other and, except when Jack goes into the wardrobe at night so that he won't have to see Old Nick (and so that Old Nick can't see him), they are never more than a glance away.  Ma loves Jack for who he is and easily separates him from the cruel man whose sperm brought Jack into being (like Ma, I hesitate to use the "f" word*).

I only have two complaints about the novel.  Occasionally Ma (and later, others) will say something to Jack that one wouldn't normally say to a child and which he doesn't understand.  Occasionally this kind of thing will happen in "real life" and when it happened in the room it was understandable as she had nobody else to say it to, but out in the world it's a little hard to believe.  Why does Jack need to hear about crashing stocks?  Well, he doesn't.  Those little bits were obviously there for the benefit of the reader, and I could have done without them.  I want dialogue to be natural between characters and not provided for the purpose of an imaginary third person.  My other issue with the novel is personal: it is far too topical.  I'm not sure why, but I take issue with elements of novels that set it too fixedly in the present day.  This is probably a topic that deserves its own post, but suffice it to say that the references to Lady Gaga and Dora the Explorer detracted from the novel for me.

Overall, this was a good read.  Disturbing, yes, but a beautiful look at the relationship between a mother and her child, particularly from the angle of the child whose mother is, quite literally, his world.

*Okay guys, this was a weird book to review on Father's Day.  I'd wait, but it's been over a week since I last posted and I just want to get something up there.  Happy Father's Day to all the true fathers and father figures out there!


  1. Nicely done review. I'm also an admirer of this book, not least because Donoghue does such fantastic job creating her 5 year old narrator. And that in the second half of the novel, we're dealing the aftermath and trauma of the captivity in a psychologically real and compelling way.

  2. Jack was a bit precocious for me, so who knows, maybe he did understand crashing stocks. Kidding and I do agree that's it's annoying when characters says something that makes no sense for them and is solely for the benefit of the reader. I get the reader may need that information, but it feels like a lazy move on the author's part.

  3. I don't remember that crashing stocks part specifically, but I remember some similar points - and it was more interesting to annoying to me, in the ways Donoghue was suggesting that Jack has a lot of knowledge for a five-year-old in some areas, but in others...well, next to none, based on growing up with an adult who does know these sorts of things, but without any access to the world of a "normal" five-year-old.

    I held off on reading your review till I had mine ready. I went into that description of their room too, but we have very different takes on it. To me it didn't seem human at all; more shocking and a way of forming Old Nick as a character, as the sort of person who believes that this living situation IS humane simply because it could be worse.

    I'm glad I finally read this...and that we happened to finish about the same time, so I could get your thoughts on it, too.

  4. This touching novel is chock full of blissfully clear un-jaded nuggets of wisdom that only a child raised in captivity could see. A true reminder of the gift of life and the power of love.