Apr 3, 2011

Monkey droppings - Room, by Emma Donoghue

The monkey does not like being held captive.

Monkeys should be free, not caged.

However, the monkey does enjoy free meals, so he's torn.

Room (HarperCollins, 2010)
by Emma Donaghue
While Bath is running, Ma gets Labyrinth and Fort down from on top of Wardrobe. We've been making Labyrinth since I was two, she's all toilet roll insides taped together in tunnels that twist lots of ways. Bouncy Ball loves to get lost in Labyrinth and hide, I have to call out to him and shake her and turn her sideways and upside down before he rolls out, whew . . . Fort's made of can and vitamin bottles, we build him bigger every time we have an empty. Fort can see all ways, he squirts out boiling oil at the enemies, they don't know about his secret knife-slits, ha ha. I'd like to bring him into Bath to be an island but Ma says the water would make his tape unsticky.
By now, there really is little point in reviewing Room, Emma Donoghue's internationally best-selling novel shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and winner of the Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize (among others). Its high-concept subject matter assured attention, its pedigree assured quality, and its ultimate content assured that Room will be a staple of book clubs for years to come.

With all that, my knee-jerk reaction was to hate it. Nothing breeds reflexive contempt like massive success, which Room has in abundance. I am fairly surprised that there hasn't yet been a Life of Pi-like backlash, although I am sure that it's coming.
NOTE: And bite it, naysayers, Life of Pi is a damn fine novel, probably one of my top ten for the first decade of the century.
So it comes with no little sense of relief that I report Room to be, in all aspects, fully deserving of its acclaim. From the first page, Donoghue won me over with a superbly-examined portrait of a young boy caught up in horrendous circumstances, and a mother determined to keep her son safe from a reality almost impossible to imagine. Believe me, I'm as surprised as anyone to care for Room so deeply, as I fully predict an Oprah endorsement, if she's still doing that sort of thing.

Based thematically on real-life events too gruesome and upsetting to mention here (so I'll just point out a wikipedia article here), Room concerns the never-named Ma and her five-year-old son Jack. As Jack narrates the tale (in a manner obviously too advanced for any five-year-old, but never mind, we have to take some literary liberties, and besides, Donoghue's depiction of his mind-set is wonderfully original and astute), we discover that they have lived in an eleven-foot square room for the entirety of his life. For Jack, life is the room, what exists within the room, and the television which shows life beyond, but which Ma assures him is not real in the slightest. Anything they require comes from Old Nick, a (to Jack) foreboding father figure who brings what he and Ma need, if it suits him to do so. It becomes quickly apparent that Ma has been kidnapped, Jack was born in captivity after Old Nick had raped Ma, and she has done her utmost to protect Jack from the reality that there is an entire world outside the walls that he can never see. In this, Room is thematically similar to Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful, about a father's desperate attempts to shield the horrors of the holocaust from his son by telling him that the death camp they reside in is really a game.

For Jack, alone with Ma and shielded from Old Nick, life is nothing but a festive routine:
We do Bowling with Bouncy Ball and Wordy Ball, and knock down vitamin bottles that we put different heads on when I was four, like Dragon and Alien and Princess and Crocodile, I win the most. I practice my adding and subtracting and sequences and multiplying and dividing and writing down the biggest numbers there are. Ma sews me two new puppets out of little socks from when I was a baby, they've got smiles of stitches and all different button eyes.
It is startling how readable Room is considering its intensely unsettling subject matter. I had steeled myself for a gut-wrenching tale of horror (how could it be anything but?), but Donoghue subverts expectations through placing her tale in Jack's hands. Through his eyes, what is horrific to consider becomes a day-to-day normality, and while Donoghue does not shy away from Jack and Ma's circumstances, her insistence in grounding the tale in Jack's limited perspective keeps Room from becoming a claustrophobic tale of horror, and her immaculate skill keeps the story from eroding into a Flowers in the Attic clone (wow, I just made myself shudder at the prospect).

It is not giving away anything (besides, every other review has done so) to reveal that Jack and Ma do indeed escape, and that half the book takes place outside of Room, as Jack adjusts himself to a world he never considered possible. As the two become unwilling celebrities, Donoghue allows herself some pointed barbs at media hysteria over such cases, especially in a pointed exchange between Ma and an over-zealous interviewer. As the interviewer keeps pushing for the triumph-over-adversity angle, and how brave it was for Ma to keep Jack despite his brutal conception story, she plays at being dismayed that Ma had breast-fed Jack for the entirety of their captivity. As Ma says, "In this whole story, that’s the shocking detail?"

As Jack comes to grips with the concept that his life has been an entire lie (There are other people? Animals actually exist?), the author arguably lays it on a little thick, and the tale threatens to become repetitive. Jack's befuddlement and sometimes outright terror at the new reality is clear and vividly drawn, but the constant predictability at his responses hinders the narrative. Perhaps it is because the first half of the novel was a completely alien terrain to the reader, but the second half suffers from a slight case of obviousness. Yet Donoghue keeps throwing left hooks where you least expect it, keeping the story building to its inevitable conclusion.

At its core, Room is about the mother-child dynamic, about love and trust, and the lengths we go to protect those we care about most. Emma Donoghue has indeed crafted a memorable novel fully deserving of its praise. Its themes are identifiable to most readers, its concept is gripping from the get-go, but what pushes it out over the top is that that Donoghue is just so fine a writer. She is a magician of character and nuance, and makes Room a special treat.



Beverly Akerman MSc said...

the problem with Donoghue's "room", like Laurence Hill's "the book of negroes" before it, is that both books take as their premise historical events that are totally horrific, and sanitize them for popular consumption.

i read both and appreciated them for what they were, but am troubled by their underplaying the depravity of their settings/events because the authors gauged (probably correctly) that readers would not be prepared to read about what REALLY happened to a girl or boy in those situations--a young slave girl, a boy whose mother was held hostage by a psychopath.

if you want to read a truly fearless writer deal with a tough, topical topic, try Lionel Shriver's "we have to talk about kevin." there's a writer worth her salt.

Unknown said...

Great review.

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