Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Emma Donoghue’s Room
June 21, 2011, 2:08 pm
Filed under: Book Reviews, Literary Fiction | Tags: , , , , , ,

Emma Donoghue’s Room is interesting for the way it tackles, as Jennifer over at Soy Chai Bookshelf writes, a topical subject, and for the ways in which it avoids fully addressing that subject. Donoghue’s novel is about the captivity of a mother and her son, Jack, who has no concept of a world beyond the confines of the converted garden shed he lives in. By telling the story from Jack’s point of view Donoghue mostly manages to avoid addressing their captivity head-on; as the Reading Ape wrote in his post summing up the 2011 Tournament of Books, Room avoids “the full force of adult consciousness” by presenting itself in the voice of a five-year-old.

Had Donoghue opted to tell the story from the mother’s point of view, though, it wouldn’t be a better book, simply a different one. Many of the horrors of the living situation explored here are amplified by Jack’s inability to view them as problems. To Jack, the room he lives in with his mother is the whole world, a place in which everything has a name (Bed, Skylight), in which anything can be a toy (eggs are threaded together and turned into a snake), and in which everything is clear and in its proper place. The joy Jack takes in things like preparing lunch is evident, but through those things Jack treats so matter-of-factly Donoghue is able to suggest the horrors of his mother’s life:

It’s 12:13, so it can be lunch. My favorite bit of the prayer is the daily bread. I’m the boss of play but Ma’s the boss of meals, like she doesn’t let us have cereal for breakfast and lunch and dinner in case we’d get sick and anyway that would use it up too fast. When I was zero and one, Ma used to chop and chew up my food for me, but then I got all my twenty teeth and I can gnash up anything. This lunch is tuna on crackers, my job is to roll back the lid of the can because Ma’s wrist can’t manage it.

We don’t know what happened to his mother’s wrist, what is wrong with it, but that Jack mentions it – that is enough to send the reader’s mind spinning off the possibilities suggested by that last sentence of the passage. Donoghue gestures at a worldview Jack’s mother has created, one centered on some Christian belief system, with the “daily bread.” She also suggests in other ways what sort of world Jack’s mother has made for him: the scheduling, the assignment of jobs, to keep their lives moving forward as much as is possible. What she does, in some sense, is to leave the mother’s thoughts vague enough that the reader is placed in the position of giving her character more life, of trying to imagine more fully how and why Jack’s mother creates the world that she does for him.

“Old Nick,” their captor, makes brief appearances in the novel, but he is more present as someone Jack’s mother doesn’t talk about “in case he gets realer.” What Donoghue does so well in this novel is to show, via the scattershot memories and observations of a five-year-old, what makes up the people around him. When Jack’s mother makes a request for some change to their accommodations Old Nick responds, “Aboveground, natural light, central air, it’s a cut above some places, I can tell you.” And, my God – the suggestion here, that he views himself as somehow reducing the horror of their circumstances, of giving them a comfortable and protected existence rather than the non-lives the mother and son live out in a 10-by-10 garden shed, makes for one of the novel’s most chilling moments. It’s not about the specifics of their room – that they have a skylight, for instance – so much as it is that Jack has hit his fifth year with no understanding of a larger world, with no idea that there are things outside of their room and those things don’t exist “in TV” but in the real world.

Donoghue sets Jack and his mother free, as she must to give this novel any arc, and again: to see this through Jack’s eyes does more to encourage the reader to explore the ways he and his mother have been formed than seeing it through his mother’s eyes would. This isn’t to say that The Reading Ape’s point about the ways Donoghue avoids addressing the “big questions” here isn’t valid, but rather to say that the novel wouldn’t gain anything if Donoghue had told this story from an adult’s perspective. In the second half of the novel she gestures at the mother’s point of view, as when Jack watches her give an interview to an Oprah figure. These passages, though, feel almost forced for the ways Donoghue shows, too explicitly, what the mother feels and thinks. The horrors of that room may be quieter when they’re told through Jack’s voice, but they’re more affecting. It’s Jack’s reluctance to leave Room and enter the “outerspace” that is the world that shows what the room has done to them, not his mother’s facing up to the questions about their captivity and Jack’s development that she must, once they escape.

Given the lackluster nature of those passages parroting the voice of Jack’s mother, Donoghue made a wise decision to tell this story from Jack’s view. By doing so she avoids having to address their captivity directly, herself, but leaves it to the reader to parse Jack’s vision of the world. After he’s freed from Room, once he’s in the world, Jack’s life doesn’t improve, in his mind, so much as it changes, radically and often negatively. As he says, “In Room we knowed what everything was called but in the world there’s so much, persons don’t even know the names.” That longing for a known world, for a space complete in and of itself, for captivity, colors everything Jack writes in Room, and at end this is the truer horror that Donoghue tries to explore.