Friday, January 17, 2014

Book Review: Room by Emma Donoghue

Room by Emma Donoghue

Brief Synopsis: Room is not just a noun. Room is a world, a whole universe. At least that is what our narrator, freshly five-year-old Jack, thinks since the 11x11 room he inhabits with his mother is the only environment he has ever known. He was born there on Rug, he measures Plant's leaves by the width of his hand there, he counts his cereals at Table, he runs his there-and-backs around the outside of Bed, and reads with Ma, all the books in the world: Alice in Wonderland, The Runaway Bunny, and Dylan the Digger. Jack lives his life in Room, right up until nine o' clock when he has to switch off inside Wardrobe, because nine o' clock is when Keypad beeps and Door finally opens. Nine o' clock is when Old Nick comes.

Published: 2010

Format Read: Trade paperback, some round-robin convenience reading on my iPhone when I snagged the Kindle version on Amazon's Deal of the Day.

Comparison: Bear with me here. First, let me say, I haven't read anything else like Room when it comes to the direct plot. One element of the book that did ring familiar, however, was the precociousness and wonderment of the narrator, Jack. It reminds me of The Little Prince by Antoine de St. Exupery. Yes, it is a stretch to compare such a dark, adult novel to a beloved children's tale, but I would say there are a lot of similarities to Jack's story and that of the Little Prince. Besides, both books teach us that the voice of a child can carry a lot of wisdom, as long as an adult isn't too proud to listen.

In many ways, I saw Jack as the Little Prince and Ma as his beloved rose. Jack busies himself with his daily routines, just as the Little Prince was so careful to pull up the baobabs and sweep his volcanoes. He took care of his tiny, lonely planet as Jack cares for his friends in Room, even recognizing each object by it's proper name: Bath, Table, Plant, Bed, Wardrobe, etc. In The Little Prince, a rose finally grows on his tiny planet and becomes The Little Prince's companion. He loves the vain, beautiful rose, and he works to appease it and protect it. The rose is sometimes cold and demanding, which reminded me of when Ma would have her catatonic Gone days. I, the adult reader, know that she was overwhelmed, traumatized, desperate, and psychologically fragile, but Jack just knew she was Gone, and he struggled to keep his routine and play by Ma's rules, Room's rules. As the story unfolds, Ma begins to depend on Jack, even telling him at one point, "I thought you were supposed to be my superhero." Jack, terrified and confused, does his best to keep up his end of the bargain, just as the Little Prince did for his rose.

Jack wonders about the land of TV, where he believes all things outside of room reside, that they are all make-believe. His forays of imagination remind me of The Little Prince visiting other planets and learning about others different from him, and different from each other. Like the Little Prince, Jack soaks up every drop of information thrust upon him and he is brave and strong and resilient--but in the end, he endeavors only to be with his Ma. The Little Prince must always go back his rose.

I could see turning the tables and looking at it the other way, too. Ma is trapped in Room by herself, surviving the best she can, and then comes Jack. She loves him with all her love but it is a demanding task to be wholly responsible for the life of your child (and Jack is all child, just as egocentric as children his age are supposed to be), especially when they're stuck on what is ostensibly their own little planet.

Review: It is possible for something unpleasant to be beautiful. That is just how I would describe Room: unapologetically uncomfortable, and beautiful anyway.

It has been a long time since I read a book that got under my skin the way this one did. It devastated me, it challenged me, it confused me, hurt me, and healed me. It sent me around my house with a tape measure trying to understand what it would be like to exist--not just survive, but exist--only in an 11x11 space. It seeped into my dreams and turned them to nightmares, sometimes as simply as a key turning in a lock. It followed me to work, where I narrowed my eyes at the brown truck in front of me with the groceries in the back, thinking maybe it was Old Nick out bargain shopping for Sundaytreat.

Any book that sticks on your heels like that has done something right.

Diagram of Room courtesy of Go there.

This book is as bold and solid as Room's big metal door. You can't find the seams--just when I thought Jack was a little too aware, a little too clever to be an accurate five-year-old, he'd hit me with something so accurately childlike that would swing me back around. This can be a cheap trick in the hands of a lesser writer--whipping the reader back and forth like a tennis match--and it doesn't usually work. Not so with Jack. Donoghue makes the necessary excuses for Jack's ability to tell us this story, but she doesn't take unfair advantage of the situation. She builds us a well-crafted narrator, who is as honest as he is unreliable.

If the idea of an unreliable narrator makes you nervous, don't let it. The action happens in front of Jack's face, and while his limitations distort the experience, it only adds to the sense of foreboding we have, knowing we are so much bigger and stronger than him, that we understand so much more than this little boy.

If you're the type who likes symbolism, I'd say there is plenty to mine from here. For one, in a lot of ways, Room is like a womb where Jack has continued his isolated gestation. His mother still breastfeeds him, which first scandalized me, but later softened me. I had to think what it was like for Ma--what connection that must have brought her, what comfort for her son. There's also the pragmatic side of things as well. As long as she keeps her milk, no matter what Old Nick does to their food supply, she can keep Jack going just a little longer. The feeding becomes a kind of antenna for what is going on in the connection between Ma and Jack, and fits with the idea of Jack, Mr. Five, but also newborn in so many of the ways important to us readers. 

Working in the field of mental health and being a staunch advocate for those with mental health challenges, it was important for me that this book get the psychology right. I don't expect an author to get a degree in Developmental Psychology to be able to write a book like this, but they have to get the anchors in the right places. I'm pleased to say I think Emma Donoghue was right on the money. She had to filter everything through Jack, and he had to pick up on just the right things to cue us in without him understanding too much (a tall order if ever there was one), but she manages it beautifully, and we get a sincere understanding for the types of physical and emotional trauma and regrowth these characters must endure. She finds ways to sneak in terms and definitions, sure, but I found the real truth to be in their faltering strength and denial. Those are things I see all the time because no one wants to admit where they are weak and hurt, especially someone who has had those places exploited.

I don't want to say too much about the plot arc itself because I don't want to spoil the book, but it is fair to say it has two distinct halves. It is likely you will prefer one over the other depending on what you like to read, but personally, I enjoyed both for their individual merits. Both halves have their own objectives which I felt were achieved nicely.

I haven't read any of Emma Donoghue's other work, but I plan to seek it out. Even writing in the voice of a five-year-old, it is clear to see she is masterful with language, and she is not afraid to boldly show you her story without watering it down with unnecessary (and self-conscious) explanations.

Back when I was a bookseller, I had a few favorite books I liked to handsell. Among them were The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson, and The Truth About Celia by Kevin Brockmeier. All of these books have something unconventional about them--structure, style, voice, plot--that would sometimes scare away a potential reader. I pressed those books into people's hands time and time again and said, "This is a Trust Novel. That means that no matter how many times you think in the beginning that you don't get it, that you don't understand, that there are too many 'whys', you have to promise yourself you are going to keep turning the pages. You are safe in this book, because no matter how hard it may seem at first, this author will take you where you need to be and it is so worth it."

Room is a Trust Novel. Emma Donoghue is not going to let you down. That's not to say everyone will like everything about this book, or any other, but if you give her a chance to draw you in, she will tell you a story that will haunt you and change the way you think.

Trust me.

No comments: