Room/Emma Donoghue: Reflections

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I was three years into writing a book that in some ways deals with the multiple strains and awful unknowing of a kidnapping when I learned about Emma Donoghue's new novel, Room.  Within a nanosecond, it seemed, Room had become the rage—awards listed and best selling.  I did what I could to filter out the news until I had written the final sentence of my own story, set it aside, let it breathe.

That was several weeks ago.  Yesterday and early this morning I sat with Room and read it through.  It is not at all the story I have written, but it fascinated me nonetheless—to walk this terrain with the talented Donoghue, to see just where her mind went as she conjured the five-year-old narrator, Jack, who in a language nearly his own tells the story of being sequestered for his first five years in an 11 x 11 foot space with his mother.  Ma was just nineteen years old and a college student when she was stolen straight out of her life.  She has found a way to survive and to mother in an unyielding room whose only view to the outside is via a skylight.  Songs, games, stories keep the two alive.  A daring escape leads them to cacophonous Outside.  Outside doesn't just confuse Jack.  It often angers him.  Ma, for her part, is relieved and abraded.  She will suffer a long time, as victims do.

The reviewers have been most keen on Jack's linguistics—his peculiar but never confusing way of speaking.  It's like reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, except that instead of moocows and nicens little boy named baby tuckoo we have a narrator who depicts his confinement to us in expressive, open language:  I jump onto Rocker to look at Watch, he says 07:14.  I can skateboard onto Rocker without holding on to her, then I whee back onto Duvet and I'm snowboarding instead.

It is Jack's own bright world, for he knows no better.  It is his mother's hell; she tries to protect him.  Donoghue gives us Ma's ache through her naive-wise son's eyes.  Because we know more than Jack can, we are made queasy, uncomfortable, prickled.  Because Jack is telling the story, we have hope.

I admire writers who create scenarios that are as tight and fortified as Jack's 11 x 11 room and yet find a way out, a gap between the bars, a path toward resolution.  Room had me turning the pages, intent, always, on finding out what happened.  It is a book, as many have said, that won't be soon forgotten.


bermudaonion said...

I agree with you, but it did take me a little while to adjust to Jack's language. Once I did, I couldn't put the book down.

Julia said...

The whole 'baby tuckoo thing' really befuddled me when I sat down with Joyce. I hope that this is more coherent, in its own way.

Kelly H-Y said...

That sounds really good.

Lilian Nattel said...

What a challenging novel to take on. I can't imagine confining a narrative to a single room. How long does the novel stay there?

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