Sunday, December 5, 2010

Bloggers' Book Club - Room by Emma Donoghoe

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.

The members of the Bloggers' Book Club (moderated by Lily, bless her!) include:

Lily @
Marian @
Cathy @
Lorna @
Susan @
Ann @
Val @
Edie @
Jen @
Kirsty @
Susan @
Winifred @
Paysan @

Drop by and leave a comment if you feel inclined. And if you'd like to join, just send Lily a message. New members are welcome so link in if you're a book-lover!


Joyti said...

I've been eyeing "Room". The first chapter was available on Amazon and NY Times for free reading, and it was compelling. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on it.

laurie said...

this was one of the best books i read this year; i think she was robbed of the Booker. the voice of Jack was true throughout; Ma was a great character, who stayed strong for her boy and didn't allow herself to fall apart until after the crisis was past.

Susan said...

You always have such informative reviews, touching on related links/subjects- much appreciated! I thought Jack's vocabulary was illustrative of his thinking in his time in Room, & quite appropriate, but once he was out, I did notice things like him saying to Grandma 'I be on the couch', which just seemed like bad grammar that Ma would have corrected. Now, the book is not in front of me, so that is not an actual quote, just an idea of just some bits of bad grammar which seemed to be simply that. I didn't feel that Ma's teaching would have missed that. That was really the only criticism that I would have of the book- it swept me away & I mainly read with my emotions & imagination on high, & my critic's hat left behind!

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed the book (if enjoyed is the right word).
Although there were a few unanswered questions for me. Like how Ma got there in the first place. Who 'Old Nick' was. What happened to him.
I also found it very hard to understand how Jack had been taken to so many places in just two weeks of leaving the Clinic. It would have been much too overwhelming for him.

Unknown said...

What a fantastic review, very detailed and insightful. I loved this book and would recommend it to everyone,

Lily said...

Like Susan said 'You always have such informative reviews, touching on related links/subjects' so never feel you are diverting, and if you are, I love your diversions :)

I'm glad you were unsure as to what Ma's name was. I was too and when writing my review was searching to see was if ever mentioned. I couldn't find a reference to it.

If people feel Donoghue was exploitative in choosing this as a theme, the fact that she dealt with the topic so sensitively, the fact that she contributed to our collective understanding of what abduction might really be like, surely justifies her choice.

'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.' - What a great conclusion.

Lily said...

Catherine, meant to ask you, overall did the members of your book club like this book?

I smiled at your line, 'moderated by Lily, bless her!'. Glad you left the invitation for others if they wish to join

Catherine said...

Thanks for all the feedback and I've enjoyed reading your reviews too. Apologies for the error in the text - I'd obviously erased some words inadvertently which made nonsense of one of the sentences.

Joyti - thanks for that and hope you feel like reading the whole book now after your taster!

Laurie - yes, I think it was better than the Jacobson book (the winner - The Finkler Question) which I'm struggling with. Would all of us be so strong for our kids? Like to think so but I'd probably fall asunder after a week of such captivity.

Susan - thanks for the compliment - that's my wandering all over the shop! But I did wonder why Ma didn't correct his syntax outside Room but then I thought why she didn't was she was falling apart and had her breakdown when she OD'd in the mental hospital. She was just worn out. Her strength was ebbing at that stage to be so strong as the imperative had gone with the danger to Jack.

Val - I mooted the idea of a prequel and/or sequel in my corrected post above and yes there was a lot of unanswered questions in the book - I'm guessing Nick just nabbed her on the way to college. Will there be a film? good one I'd say.

Marian glad you liked it too - I certainly would recommend it to friends - just tried and failed spectacularly to get my best pal in New Jersey (my only pal in NJ - I mean best pal ever!) to read it as she has a life's too short approach to misery lit!

Lily - I agree totally that she can justify her book by what it adds to our understanding of the plight of such victims. It is done with sensitivity and compassion and a dose of reality too. Thanks for the compliment on my closing line!
As for the question of what our members felt - very polarised. Some loved it and a lot of the reasons were those given above by the various BBC members - getting an understanding of what abduction is like for the victims, the voice of the child being realistic - grammatical glitches notwithstanding - as she listened to her own children to get a sense of the voice of a five year old. The irritation of the definite article (lack of!) was quickly forgotten by most, although one very pedantic member who is a voracious reader and sometime critic was very unforgiving of this.
Others felt that she exploited the Fritzl case and the Dugard case - even though she had written Room before the Dugard case came to light. So it really generated a heated debate and a lively discussion! We remain friends still!
All the best, Catherine

SusanC said...

A really well written review as always Catherine. I'd love your way with words.

I didn't consider the novel exploitive at all. I don't understand the media bandying those accusations around the place. If this novel is to be considered exploitive, then so must shouldn't the same apply to novels that relate to murder, kidnap, espionage, even love? Should everyone just stop writing altogether?

Catherine said...

Good point Susan - it's a b it po-faced to take the exploitation thing as a reason not to write but people can be very moralistic about certain things like this - I remember Edna O'Brien getting wicked flak over her book based on the murders in Co. Clare of a mother and son and a priest some years ago, In the Forest. She got hate mail over it interview with her here. We're very intolerant at times, especially of outsiders commenting on our failings as a society. Hubby often feels that any opinion he has on Ireland is not his right as a foreigner which is difficult to cope with after living her over a 30 yr period he still gets the old You wouldn't understand, or well that's how it's done here, ad nauseum!
Well I agree with you there - censorship took long enough to get rid of in our priest-ridden isle!

Rita said...

I just found you blog last week and I love to read you. I have a feeling I will certainly learn so much here.

Ann said...

I had heard about this book. A friend mentioned it a few weeks ago. I am not sure I am up to reading such a distrubing story at present but I will put it on my must read list. Great review Catherine. Thanks

Janet said...

Excellent post Catherine with lots to think about. I would like to read the book, I think, but I have lots of others in the queue. As to your husband's feelings about still feeling a foreigner in Ireland - I always felt like that also even having been rooted in Ireland since 1968. Now that we have moved to the States I feel a degree of liberation - this is my country. And it's my husband who feels the foreigner and no right to express his critical views or opinions.