Emma Donoghue, “Room”

I’ve been avoiding Room. It was everywhere for a while, including, insistently, the shelves of my local library which are very far from well-stocked. I had picked it up and read a few pages, then put it down. Narrated by a five-year-old boy who, with his mother, is imprisoned in a windowless room? (She was kidnapped at 19 and has been held as a sex slave.) A boy who has never known anything besides that enclosed space? Nah, not my cup of tea.

One of the great book jackets.

But a friend recommended it strongly, using the word “affirming.” And next time I went to the library, there it was. Still. Again. So I took the bait. And if you care about the plot, stop reading now because I’m going to give it away.

Concession: the voice is remarkable. Emma Donoghue inhabits the perceptual world of a small but smart child who has never seen the light of day. She even provides for Jack’s eerie ability to repeat dialogue (which is pretty crucial: he has to overhear some important conversations) by having him play “Parrot” with his mother — he repeats random long sentences from TV shows.

Another concession: Room is supremely readable. I even put it to the reading-on-the-treadmill test and 30 sweaty gasping minutes have never vanished more quickly.

Room is not even as creepy as I’d expected. It is not Silence of the Lambs, or even close. Jack and his mother do escape, and about half of the book concerns their difficult adjustment to what Jack calls the “real” world, or “Outside.” It’s a testament to Donoghue’s talent that the escape is not the peak of the book. I read just as eagerly once Jack and his mother (known to us only as “Ma”) were in the world, coping with the barrage of uncertainty and confusion that brings. Jack misunderstands so much of what he sees, while Ma is tortured by what has changed, what she’s lost, what she now has to face up to. In some respects living in Room was simple.

Donoghue avoids the terrible threat of sentimentality here. Anger, fear, resentment, occasional hilarity are woven into the narrative. Jack’s progress toward resilience is delicately handled. Ma, unsurprisingly, has a really hard time. Jack’s overt nostalgia for the certainties of their prison/room puts the first chunk of emotional distance between them. Necessary distance, actually.

So let’s think about Room as a metaphor for any kind of emotional imprisonment — in anger, addiction, narcissism, whatever. Think about the second half as a vision of the potential richnesses of life, in nature, in relationships, in the smallest experiences. This seems to be a valid reading, and it almost erases for me the faintly grubby “I’m a voyeur” feeling carried over from the first half. Or I could look at the first, Room-bound half as an updated Robinson Crusoe tale, in which Ma improvises a constructive life from her shocking situation. The second half then sees her faltering in the face of our noisy consumer-driven culture. Yes, both of those interpretations are pretty superficial. I guess I’m trying to figure out why, in the end, I admired Room but didn’t actually like it. It could simply be the subject matter: just too dark.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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3 Responses to Emma Donoghue, “Room”

  1. Alex says:

    I do know what you mean about this book. I also avoided it until it turned up on one of my book group lists and short of not going I had to read it. In fact, almost all of us had felt the same way but with only one exception we came out feeling very much as you do; we admired the control behind the execution, but didn’t actually warm to it. Perhaps this is why it was short listed for so many awards but in the main came up short in the final voting.

  2. carolwallace says:

    One thing about “Room,” Alex, is that people who’ve read it have strong opinions — I’ve already heard via email from two friends who are great fans. So whatever the strengths or weaknesses of the book itself, it does seem to get people talking, and we have to be grateful for that.

  3. Pingback: Follow my book blog, “Book Group of One” | | Carol Wallace BooksCarol Wallace Books

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