Friday, May 4, 2012

Donoghue's Room Has Some Trappings

There comes a point in the first few chapters of Room by Emma Donoghue when readers have to make a choice. Either they allow the narration of a five-year-old boy to annoy them or they can roll along with it as his voice matures and more adult dialogue helps move the story along.

For some readers, it won't be an easy decision to make. But the longer they take to make it, the harder it will be to enjoy the subtitles and substance of the Room, a novel about perspective as much as anything else. Jack and his mother have two very different world views. 

Room is a story about captivity, perspective, maternal bond, and hope.

Jack isn't an ordinary boy. His entire world is nothing more than a space measuring 11 feet by 11 feet. His only connection to the outside world comes from the grated skylight in the ceiling, a handful of programs on television, and the man who brings them food, supplies, and a Sunday surprise.

Even then, Jack never interacts with Old Nick. It's one of the rules his mother invented to protect him. 

For the last five years, "Ma" has made it her mission to keep him safe as her world view is so very different. She remembers her life before the Room well enough. She was abducted seven years ago after being baited to help a man who said his dog was throwing a fit. The mistake cost her her freedom.

As a result, while the author's decision to make the narrator a child is a gamble, it pays off in that Jack's sheltered innocence makes the story bearable. He doesn't see their imprisonment as something out of the ordinary. He finds comfort in the routines that he and his mother share daily. He doesn't know how life could be different, and expresses exuberance and joy over the smallest of things. 

That's not to say there isn't a chronic sense of claustrophobia, interrupted by sudden bursts of trepidation, tension, and fear. Even when Jack doesn't grasp the situation, his interaction with his mother makes it real and ever present. 

Ma lives one day at a time, and some days are better than others. She is just as likely to check out as she is to be his best friend, tutor, or playmate. And for her, Old Nick is a dangerous and life-threatening wild card.

The Room is written as two halves, both frightening in their own way.

"I always saw the novel as having two halves, each would shed a different light on the other," says Donoghue. "As always happens with a book in two parts, reviewers tend to prefer one over the other: many find the second half more ordinary, but a few find relief after the claustrophobia of the first."

While some may have a favorite half, Donoghue is right. Neither can exist without the other. It is Jack's ability to compare two very different worlds that completes the book. It also reinforces the haunting justification of their captor — that somehow they should have been grateful to be isolated from it. 

Inside, it's the physical space that confines the mother and son. Outside, it is the social mores that can feel suffocating. While the author never suggests the former is better than the latter, she does make a statement about how petty, judgmental, and restrictive that society can be, especially the media. 

Once they are free, the mother-son protagonists find that the outside world can be both kind and cruel. For them, everything becomes a dangerous and life-threatening wild card.

Emma Donoghue draws upon a variety of cases, especially one. 

While Donoghue calls journalists who describe it as "a book about Josef Fritzl" lazy, she does say that the notion of a woman bearing the child of her captor and then sheltering the child came from that case. In comparing the real case to the novel, there are other similarities and differences — some too similar to be coincidental.

Even so, those similarities ought not to detract from the originality of the work. Unlike Elisabeth Fritzl, Ma bears no relation to her captor. She isn't imprisoned for 24 years. And the added terror of their prison being a converted underground cellar is absent. 

In fact, much like her decision to use the young boy as a narrator, Donoghue does a fine job in creating a marginally comfortable environment that almost fools you into believing it might be bearable. It isn't. It is, however, a harrowing tale of survival in captivity and, at times, a thrilling page turner that is difficult to put down.

Room: A Novel By Emma Donohue Traps 4.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

The best thing about Room: A Novel is when the story moves beyond the opening routines and settles in on their plans of escape. The most challenging parts of the story are in attempting to reconcile the size of the room (overtly cramped, as illustrated above) and the attitudes of some adults once they are out. Empathy is surprisingly rare among most of them.

Room: A Novel is available on Amazon and you can find the book at Barnes & Noble. Room can also be downloaded for iBooks or as an audiobook from iTunes. The audiobook is played by a cast of characters, especially Michal Friedman as Jack. Personally, I found it was easier to read the broken narration than listen to it, but anyone could easily feel differently. 
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