Apparently there’s a lot of ‘buzz’ surrounding this book. This makes me instantly suspicious. The literary press, like so many January Sale shoppers, have been falling over themselves to claim that they saw it first; Emma Donoghue (Irish born, Cambridge Educated, Canadian living) is even rumoured to have been paid an advance of quarter-of-a-million pounds for it – an almost unheard of amount of money for a writer who has enjoyed only moderate success. With so much fuss surrounding a brand-new novel by a (relatively) obscure writer, I just had to read it for myself – if only to sate my curiosity.
Here’s the blurb:
Jack is five years old. He’s spent his entire life locked inside a small room with his mother; he’s never been outside, he doesn’t even know that there is an outside. Maybe there isn’t. Jack’s universe is the room he lives in and the few objects inside it.
Intriguing stuff – one glimpse at this short synopsis filled me with a thousand questions, and the philosopher within me got very excited – he only seldom comes out to play. However, I soon found that the most pressing question – what is going on? – is answered within the first few pages: it turns out that Room isn’t the highly abstract, experimental novel I thought it was going to be. Jack’s mum has been kidnapped and raped, held in captivity for seven years and given birth to a son in the process. I entered Room expecting Plato’s cave; what I found was Fritzl’s basement.
But once I’d gotten over this initial disappointment, I began to realise that the two aren’t so dissimilar. Superficially, Room is the story of a woman who’s taken from the street, raped, and has a child she is forced to bring up in captivity. But even the most meagre scratch through the surface of this narrative will expose a whole array of philosophical themes flowing through the novel, surging like a restless underground river: sensory deprivation, the development of language, notions of ‘society’, isolation, grief and sociopathy are just a few of the ‘big issues’ tackled by Room. And it tackles them well. Its subject matter makes Room a disturbing book, but I want you to dispel any pre-conceived notions of what a misery memoir or novel of abuse is like; this is not one of those books.
The entire novel is narrated by five-year-old Jack in the first-person singular present tense. He has no notion of anything outside of the room in which he was born; there are no windows and he is pushed inside a wardrobe by his mother whenever their captor brings food. His friends are Dora the Explorer and Lady Gaga – but they ‘are TV’ and don’t talk to him. At this point it would be tempting to make some crass comparison between the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave and images displayed by modern television; but to draw such an association would be a bit twee.
As Jack’s life experience is so limited, so is his use of language. Emma Donoghue has, very clearly, put a great deal of research and effort into Jack’s characterisation – and I readily admit that Jack is one of the most original voices in fiction that I’ve ever come across.
Jack has no concept of multiplicity, or that anything exists beyond his day-to-day experience in the room. As such he employs no grammatical articles when he speaks; there is not a bed or the bed, simply ‘bed’. Nothing is an indefinite or definite article – for Jack, the abstract of any given noun is, essentially, its entire identity. He converts concrete nouns into proper nouns; if you want to be dainty about it.
I sit on Chair, and I look at Kit on Shelf near Bed. Next to Bed is Rug and Table.
I defy even the most stone-hearted reader not to feel the deepest sympathy for Jack and his plight. His mother enforces a routine on their lives which includes the daily scream for help – which Jack thinks is just a game.
Jack’s mother reads to him – a lot. The only novel he knows is Alice in Wonderland and Jack uses his word-perfect knowledge of this book to describe the world around him. Everything he encounters has a parallel with Alice in Wonderland, and his unique living conditions means that Jack can draw some highly original readings out of his favourite book.
If you were particularly eccentric, you could claim that Room is nothing more than a bizarre literary criticism of Alice in Wonderland in the the form of a fiction. Barely a page goes by without Jack drawing some strange, yet beautiful comparison between his tragic existence and Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece.
Jack’s narratorial innocence is off-set by the worldly knowledge of you as reader. He must stay ‘in wardrobe’ when their captor comes to ‘play with’ his mother – but it’s painfully obvious what’s going on: he is forced into a cupboard while his mother is being raped. What may be bewildering or playful to Jack is sinister to the reader. Room is a powerfully emotive experience, and Donoghue’s writing is so accomplished that even when Jack is at his most confused, the reader always knows exactly what is going on.
Note: It’s difficult to discuss this novel without some spoilers, so if you want to come to the book afresh, I recommend you stop reading here.
At exactly the half-way point of Room, Jack and his ‘Ma’ break free; it’s a dramatic episode and heavily symbolic of the process of birth. It is in this second act that Jack begins to experience the world for the first time, and it’s here that Room really astonishes – both as a novel and as a piece of speculative psychology.
Here the prose undergoes a dramatic reversal of tone. Whereas Jack was comfortable and secure in the room, the vastness of the world ‘outside’ is too much for his undeveloped psychology. He constantly begs his mother to take him ‘back to Room’ and even refuses to acknowledge the existence of other humans.
The most mundane experiences, like the opening of a door, the sight of a staircase or the sensation of rain cause Jack to suffer hysterical attacks of panic. I was sceptical of the apparent extremity of this, but some basic research (read: ‘googling’) informed me that such intense disorders of anxiety are common among long-term captives deprived of normal sensory practice. He also suffers from visuo-spatial deficiencies and has no sense of personal boundaries or the difference between truth and fiction.
In this second-half, Jack’s naivety and inexperience create some highly unusual metaphors that are simultaneously charming and loaded with heart-breaking pathos:
I don’t want to walk in the sea.
“but Jack, it’s just rain and salt. Ever taste a tear?”
“Well, that’s the same as the sea.”
I really don’t want to walk in it if it’s made of tears.
Room is almost the opposite of the novel of self-discovery. Jack isn’t discovering himself, but the rest of the world.
It’s also a book that’s going to divide people. Some readers will be put-off by the controversial subject matter; other (more cynical) readers may be irritated by the saccharine sentimentality expressed in the relationship between Jack and his mother. There’s also an oddly repetitive fixation with childhood erections – the significance of which escapes me. And the persistent name-dropping of celebrities and consumer brands could also have been avoided, I feel. So it does have some minor flaws, but nothing that undermines its overall goals as a novel.
It’d be easy to dismiss Room as a nothing more than a hodge-podge mash up of several very contrasting inspirations: The Fritzl case, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland as well as the current popular fixation with the misery of the individual within a society. But Room is much more than the sum of its parts. Jack’s narration alone could be read as an exercise in experimental form and linguistic psychology.
I don’t want to gush, but I’m not embarrassed to praise either: Room is really, really good. Some people are going to hate it for its fixation on suffering and its overt sentimentality, but I was profoundly moved by Jack’s story and Donoghue’s accomplished writing. For some, the buzz surrounding this novel may turn out to be nothing more than the hum of flies around shit; for me, the pre-release hype was entirely justified, and as much as I’d like to keep Room as my little secret, I’m sure that the quiet buzz will soon break-out into a deafening crescendo of fawning praise and garrulous sentiment; and, for once, you won’t hear me complaining.