We had this Man-Booker shortlisted novel for our real-world book club here in Lismore last month so it was serendipitous that it was listed for the Bloggers' Book Club for November. There's been a few coincidences recently - Andrea Levy's Small Island was another one we did in both worlds and it went down a treat in each!
Room has just won the Irish Novel of the Year at the Irish Times Book Awards and it is a well deserved accolade for Emma Donoghue, whatever you may make of the novel's subject matter which has sat uncomfortably with many readers. It's a pretty ambiguous book and many of our book club members seemed ambivalent; torn between admiration and exasperation, the lack of the definite article was a particular gripe with one of our members who found it incongruous in a child with an otherwise extremely advanced vocabulary.
Many felt uncomfortable about the voyeuristic sense that it exploited for literary and commercial gain the misery of those who had experienced such incarceration, particularly the Fritzl case in Austria which was the inspiration for Donoghue.
Coincidentally, last Sunday morning Emma Donoghue and her father Denis Donoghue, a renowned literary critic were on RTÉ Radio One's Miriam Meets. It was a fascinating programme and it showed the relationship between father and daughter to be mutually loving and relaxed. She came across as a gentle articulate woman with a lovely accent - Hiberno-Canadian overtones probably - and he as a slightly self-deprecating academic and family man. I have to admit I'd never heard of him but had read her before - Stir-Fry was the first of her books I read back in the '70s and it left an impression.
But this is a review of Room. The subject was harrowing - based on the horrendous true story of abduction and imprisonment of young women by monsters - often their own fathers as in the Joseph Fritzl case - and in this book, a stranger who abducted Ma (I don't think she's named in the book - correct me if I'm wrong) as a young student and held her hostage in a soundproofed garden shed for 7 or 8 years. Long enough for her to be impregnated twice - first with a baby who dies, and is buried in the garden by the abductor/father (known only as Old Nick, a nicely Satanic reference), and then with Jack who survives and becomes the focus of Ma's life. The story opens when he's almost six and he is the narrator throughout. It quickly becomes evident that he is an extremely precocious child with a vocabulary way beyond his tender years, and an intelligence of acquired knowledge - like reading and big words - while having a very peculiar trait. He personalises objects in his environment and in doing so drops the indefinite article. The Wardrobe is simply Wardrobe, and every inanimate object in his frame of reference comes alive. It is a grating construct that grew on me - I quickly got over the initial irritation - and it made perfect sense to me when he had such a strange world view.
For Jack, his world was Room - he knew no other space - and Ma conspired in this by telling him the world they saw on TV was not real. So he grows up with the norms of childhood in the early 21st Century - TV. Dora the Explorer is his favourite children's programme, slightly unusual as it is generally favoured by girls, but Jack has no gender stereotypes to conform with. Their lives in Room are so confined yet Jack has no sense of this, knowing nothing else. That he has got to five with such intelligent development is a testimony to Ma's care and the most disturbing images are of his hiding in Wardrobe during the visits of their abductor and Ma's passivity in succumbing to his advances, all the while humouring him to protect Jack. She still breastfeeds Jack which makes sense - they need to be close to each other and it provides him with nutrients he might not get from his diet given that he never saw daylight except through the skylight in Room.
I found myself trying to imagine how the world would be if all you knew was the one space and had no language to describe the rest of the world. It reminded me of writer/philosopher Alain de Botton's references to Xavier de Maistre's Voyage around my Room in his book The Art of Travel. de Maistre wrote about travelling around his bedroom, as if on a global expedition - but he knew what else was out there. Jack has no idea what he's missing, and only midway through the book when Ma plots the escape plan does she disclose the truth to him. He cannot comprehend that there is a world with more people out there, and while the actual escape stretches the imagination a bit I think Donoghue deserves a bit of artistic licence as there was no other way to do it.
The book is clearly divided into a before and after - life in Room and beyond. The world falling apart for Jack is at times harrowing and if not such a difficult scenario would be often hilarious. The poor boy has a hard time adjusting to relationships with the family of Ma who has a nervous breakdown soon after their rescue. There's little reference to the abductor afterwards, other than to confirm he'd be getting life. I found the after part of the book quite disjointed and it probably reflected their new life - she had to pick up the pieces after a long absence and her parents had split up, so she had a new Steppa to contend with while her natural father came from Australia to visit her and had a difficulty with Jack being the result of rape. It had an open ending - so one hopes there's a good future for both of them - if there's a sequel potential I'd be curious to know what went on before - maybe there'd be a prequel as well.
I'm going to add some videoclips I saw on other Blogger's Book Club member's reviews, as they give a good sense of the macabre world we move into with Room.
All in all, I loved the voice of Jack - his innocence and absolute acceptance of the world he knows is credible, and while the lack of the indefinite article is a bit irritating at first it blends in with the theme. I could visualise Room so well that I could imagine them exercising, feeding, watching TV and hiding in Wardrobe. The horrors of the incarceration are alluded to and the reader is drip-fed tidbits, like the injured wrist which Ma sustained from her abductor, her rotten tooth which Jack holds like a talisman, a soother. There are terrible things in this book that creep up on the reader they are told so matter-of-factly by Jack referring to incidents or relaying what Ma's told him happened.
There's a subtext on breastfeeding and societal attitudes to extended feeding which are nicely addressed here - Jack helps himself to "some" as he calls the milk whenever he wants it - a situation prevailing in many parts of the world today - but it freaks out people on the outside when they hear of it, as if it's one of the bigger deals. The topic is opened up without being laboured pedantically but it shows the prejudice that society can have towards something so innocent, as if it's something bad she's doing, instead of a way to keep sane as well as keep Jack healthy in his incarceration.
While it is a disturbing difficult book to read, that's probably the genius of the writer. As a mother of a young boy like Jack, she listened and listed his speech patterns to get the gist of a child's voice. The reader is drawn into their world that it becomes plausible and real. I would say this book will be read by book clubs globally and there will be a universality in the response to it, a difficult subject, controversial regarding allegations of exploitation by the writer of such situations - some of our members and indeed some journalists felt it exploited the awful abductions like that of Jaycee Dugard that came to light in 2009, the Fritzl one in 2008 and the Kampusch one in 2006, both in Austria. I'm sure Austrian society has done a lot of soul-searching lately but I don't think any country can take the moral high ground. We're not too hot ourselves in our treatment of the innocent, with all the clerical sex abuse of children, the dreadful incest cases exposed in the media - some high-profile like the McColgan and Kilkenny and Roscommon cases, others less so where there's a litany of misery in the cold detached language of a newspaper court report.
The subject matter might be bleak, and any review will reflect that, but I think Donoghue offers insight into what it might be like to be a victim of such a terrible crime and we'll all hug our children a little bit tighter after reading a book like Room - and be thankful for our ordinary mundane lives.
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