Thursday, December 30, 2010

12 books, 12 months: Room, by Emma Donoghue

This is part 3 of my portion of a book review series brought to you by The Latter Day Bohemian via Middle-Aged Woman. I originally posted this on my personal blog, and then moved it.

Pssst: This post contains book spoilers. It's not that I don't get why reviews don't contain spoilers, know, half of this book takes place after a major event, and not ONE of the reviews I have read reviewed the entire book because of that thing. And that isn't journalistic integrity, exactly, it feels like journalistic truncation. Or something. So, as an amateur, armchair reviewer, I'm too interested in the whole book to give you half of a review. But if you haven't read the book already, I speak to a few major plot points - be warned, 3 readers!

Anyway. This book is tough. It takes on a lot of hurdles, some sensational, some psychological, and some imaginative. It's a book that could so easily falter that I kept expecting something bad (literarily speaking) to happen.

Among a series of other, generally tight conceits, Room is built on the premise that a 5-year-old boy, Jack, is the narrator. As the parent of 2 kids, ages 7 and 3, I was pretty skeptical that Donoghue could really get into the weird phrasing and idiosyncratic voice of a 5-year-old narrator. But...she did. Very very well, I think. FAR better than any other adult book I've read where a child narrates in the first person (Carson McCullers, if you aren't dead - probably you are - take note! Charles Dickens - definitely dead - would be shamed).

Not once did I want to rip my headphones out and yell "ARGH!!!" (and YES, I "read" this as an audio book - again - which may have contributed to the overall believability of Jack's voice, as I had an actor reading me lines that may have been more awkward on paper).

There are multitudes of small points where Jack is spot-on. His interchanging verb tenses, his attempt to ferret (flawed) logic from a situation he half understands. It's an amazing portrayal and worth every second of this book for that achievement alone.

So...straight from the worst, most sensationalized news, Room (as you, 3 readers probably have already heard) is about a mother and son who live in a tiny, fortressed, 1-room garden shed, held captive by a man, "Old Nick" who kidnapped the mother when she was 19 and put her in the room he had already created for that purpose. Jack is their son.

Many other reviews have spent a lot of time talking about the weirdness/cleverness of Jack's world scope (they don't sleep on a bed, but on Bed; other inanimate characters include Duvet, Wardrobe, Plant, and so forth...). And more time also (elsewhere) has been devoted to the sense of "real" or "not real" that Jack has, growing up in a world where the only "real" people he has ever seen is himself and Ma.

While I like the attention paid to those details by Donoghue, I was most impressed by her portrayal of characters. Like Jack, Ma (she is not given a real name) has an intent, unique personality that scrabbles off the page. This story survives on Ma's ingenuity and strength, and also on her crushing depression and stress. When Ma is not on the page, the narration limps along a bit lifelessly.

In the first half of the book, while they are in captivity (this is the big spoiler - they escape!), Donoghue establishes a well crafted, subtle relationship between the two. Once their situation becomes more apparent, there are hundreds of little touches that both reveal and give shape to the two characters. Donoghue invests Ma with a wealth of creativity inside a world of deprivation, and the two characters re-write their situational poverty through a series of daily, innovative rituals.

In my favorite of these, they set up the room to have an obstacle path, and then they "hike" around and around their tiny room, talking about the things they would see on a hike: "a tree", "a bear"...While Donoghue, through Jack, is never explicitly complimentary or descriptive about Ma, the effort Ma puts into parenting Jack well and carefully in that impossible situation is repeatedly breathtaking.

I've been a volunteer with trauma-survivor service agencies for almost 20 years, mostly as a peer-to-peer support person. Subsequently, many of the ways in which Ma is some days strong, some days catatonic, some days angry really resounded for me. I don't know what kind of research Donghue did with trauma victims, but I do know she created someone who could believably have been one of my clients. And her moods, linked so tightly to Jack as she is, were best reflected in the tragedy of a child who couldn't understand, but had learned to cope on days when Ma was "gone", wrapped in a catatonic state of blankness.

I think the strangest reaction I had to this book was my inability to finish it immediately. I was gripped by the story, and felt tremendous (reader) anxiety about how they could escape. Donoghue set up the tension and the exposition of how Ma had tried to escape over the years in a greatly paced way, so that as I pieced together Ma's history and helplessness (such as her discovery that Old Nick had reinforced the foundation of the shed with chain-link fencing), I was caught - brainstorming more ways in my head as I read.

And then...about 2/3 of the way through the book, after they've escaped and are living in a psych hospital for evaluation and "re-integration", Ma attempts suicide. And I was devastated. It was one of the most clinically believable, tragic moments I've hit in a book in a long time, and I had to stop. It took me almost 2 months to come back and see what happened. It ended tightly, but I was still raw from thinking about what led Ma to that place. And so even though I didn't want to finish it, I think even that speaks to Donoghue's unerring skill.

Overall, Room is one of the best researched contemporary novels I've read. While there were stumbles, they were quite possibly stumbles of my own understanding, such as my disappointment in Ma's parents' response to her return to them after 7 years in captivity. I think Donoghue wants to show that Ma was disconnected from her parents before she was kidnapped, or maybe more that Jack, narrating that reunion, didn't understand the experience. Whichever, I was left feeling empty about something that had so much potential for resonance. And the grandparent/family characters felt weakly drawn and not-quite-real. Which perhaps circles back to that point of, maybe they just weren't quite real to Jack.


  1. Very good review of the book! I will say that I was most invested in Ma's strength in this book . . . both the good and the bad. She made some amazing strides in parenting, despite her limits, and I was angered at the "press" and their insinuations. Overall, I don't know if I can rave about the book as a whole. I'm still thinking about it . . . but that says something about it too!

  2. "Whichever, I was left feeling empty about something that had so much potential for resonance."

    Just passing through, and this really struck me. I felt very much the same way - cheated, almost. But I think you make an interesting point that maybe we feel like this because it's from Jack's point of view.

    At any rate, hello, fellow fortysomething/March birthday person! :)