Friday, March 11, 2011

Review of Room by Emma Donoghue

I have to give Donoghue credit.  Telling a story from the point of view of a five year old boy is one of the more unique twists I’ve read, particularly when the boy has lived his life entirely in a 12 x 12 garden shed he calls Room.  His mother was kidnapped at age 19 by Old Nick and kept in Room for seven years, during which time she gave birth to Jack.  The story opens on Jack’s fifth birthday.  It appears to be a normal day at home for a preschooler and his mom, but we soon find that the duo are kept behind a security coded door which can only be opened by their captor.  Jack hides in the wardrobe on the nights Old Nick “visits” with Ma.
            The story unfolds with a risky escape and the aftermath of freedom in the world Outside.  In spite of the disturbing subject, Jack’s narration filters the haunting bits through young eyes.  His attention is ever flitting toward his childish interests rather than his mother’s suffering, which makes the harsh scenario tolerable.  Sometimes his voice made me think I was reading a dark and perverse Junie B. Jones – like some tragic offspring of Cormac McCarthy and Barbara Park.
           One part that resonated with me was when Ma was sometimes “Gone”.  These were the rare days when Jack’s mother couldn’t get out of bed and wouldn’t speak, and he would have to fend for himself around Room.  Even though Jack was all she had, Ma needed times when she could shut everything out, even the boy.  She is sexually assaulted nearly every night, her body never truly being her own.  This ownership of her physical self is further complicated by Jack, who is still nursing at age five.  He demands it for comfort, and she doesn’t refuse what little she has to offer her son in this prison.  How she must feel like just another object in Room – Lamp, Rug, Bed, Plant, and Ma.
            Although I found Jack’s voice authentic, it did not endear him to me.  Five year olds are selfish.  They do things we tell them not to do.  They refuse to do what we ask of them.  They are petty when angry.  Although I had compassion for his horrible situation, I didn’t fall in love with Jack.  Although he managed the escape, I didn’t find him heroic.  There were not enough moments where I felt him tug at my heart.  There were more moments when I was aggravated with him (even though I didn’t want to be).  Jack’s closure at the end was satisfying, but my happiness was not for him.  All I could think was “Thank God – maybe this kid will let his mother move on from this nightmare!” 
            Donoghue deftly handles the dynamics between child and mother, as well as the insanity of raising children in our busy, modern world.  She writes with spot-on accuracy the thoughts and behaviors of a five year old boy.  However, I think I might have preferred a larger-than-life Jack to a realistic one, or at least a one that had a few more redeeming qualities.  When I'm not weeping during a story with such potential for poignancy, something is amiss (but then again, I am a crybaby).  The child’s perspective that made Room unique and palatable kept me at arm’s length from the characters and their situations.  It's an unfortunate catch-22 – the gimmick that made me buy and read the book was ultimately the thing that kept me from thinking it was a great book instead of a good one.  It’s the risk of playing with point-of-view, but despite this minor flaw, I’d say Room was a worthy experiment. 

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