On Room, by Emma Donoghue

Good enough for the Booker? Just might be.

There are some days when I go to work and it seems like everyone on the staff is raving about some book that isn’t out yet, but the publishers want us to hit the ground running with.  Typically these are books for teenagers, and since I don’t read YA as a rule [no offense, I have enough books for grown-ups to read, and life shortens every day] I don’t pay much attention.

But sometimes the book that sets the staff on fire is adult fiction. Even better, sometimes it’s serious fiction, something that falls outside of the ‘WWII-Weeping Middle Eastern Woman’ continuum that seems to plague the majority of ‘serious fiction.’  Sometimes it’s even a novel that gets shortlisted for the Booker Prize. A book like Emma Donoghue’s  Room.

The novel is narrated by Jack, a five-year-old boy who’s lived his entire life with his Ma in a tiny structure he calls Room. Ma teaches him that Room is all there is, and anything that isn’t Room exists in TV.  Jack eats, exercises, watches TV [but not too much] bathes and reads stories until just before 9.00 p.m. That’s when Ma makes him go to sleep in the wardrobe, because that’s when Old Nick, the man who holds them captive in Room, comes to visit.

The novel is clearly inspired by cases like that of Josef Fritzl, an Austrian man who kept one of his daughters locked in a dungeon built into the back of his house, where he would rape and assault her countless times over the course of 24 years.  It’s easy to hear that and think that Donoghue is exploiting such horrific crimes for her art, but Donoghue’s skill, and what makes the novel work so well, is that she always knows where the best story is.  To tell the story from Ma’s perspective, the novel could very likely degrade into some Ann Rule-style, grocery store paperback schlock.  But by telling the story through Jack’s perspective, through his innocence, leaving it to the readers to piece together the horror he doesn’t know he’s experienced, the story moves far beyond cheap exploitation.

To say how it does this, we need to go behind the spoiler cut. Where there will be SPOILERS!

The question at the core of the novel, at least in the early goings, is whether or not Jack and Ma escape from Room.  But that’s a diversion, that’s not where the story really is, and again Donoghue knows it, so Jack and Ma escape from Old Nick  in the first third of the novel in a suspenseful and last-ditch attempt to try for freedom.  How Jack and Ma respond to the rest of the world, a world Jack didn’t even know existed, that’s where the story is.  Donoghue captures with skill and compassion the voice of a child who is being born again into a world completely foreign to him, when he’s old enough to realize just how disconnected he is from all of it.  Ma has her own struggles, not only with Jack [who at times wants to go back to Room, because it’s all he knows and understands] but with her family as well [she emerges to find her parents divorced, and her father wants nothing to do with Jack because of what his life represents].  These relationships and struggles are what kept me turning pages until 3.00 a.m. all weekend.  They’re what made me blow through the novel with a quicker speed than I’ve read anything in a long time.

While I will grant that the novel is pretty flawlessly written, I won’t say it’s for everyone.  How much you enjoy Room has nothing to do with your tolerance for psychological horror or suspense, but everything to do with your tolerance level for children.  Donoghue effectively captures Jack’s voice as a frustrating, bull-headed, selfish and codependent five-year-old. Frankly, if I’d had to deal with him alone in Room with his mother for another twenty pages, I might have chucked the book. Credit to Donoghue for knowing the exact moment when to kick the narrative up and bring the outside world in.

Funny, when I started the book I worried I wasn’t in the proper mind for it, coming off of a big, serious business novel like Franzen’s Freedom.  After finishing both, I can appreciate how they’re similar in a lot of ways.  The Berglunds, Jack and Ma are all desperate for freedoms literal and figurative, only to find that those freedoms come at a harder price than they anticipated, and some are not worth the pain and heartbreak.

Room is out now in stores, I imagine you’ll be hearing much more about it throughout the fall.

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