What I’m Reading Now
In September my book club will discuss Emma Donoghue’s novel Room, which I’d avoided reading because it sounded so awful. A young mum and her little boy imprisoned, caged, cut off from all human contact except with their jailer, the child’s father? No thanks. . . .
However, Donoghue’s admirable choice of the boy as narrator immediately draws the reader in. Precisely because Jack doesn’t understand the objective horror of his situation, he describes his life with relish. So much to see and do, in this small space! Phys Ed, Wardrobe, Bath, Window, Shouting, plus a very few items the outer world might see as toys or entertainment — he responds to all.
Anyone who’s experienced the tedium of long hours with the very young can only admire Jack’s Ma for her inventiveness in making a wide world for her son out of a prison. She does a marvellous job. Donoghue shows, though, the price Ma pays. Occasionally she’s “gone” for a whole day, on her bed, unresponsive, sunk in depression. Jack at five doesn’t like this, of course, but he copes. Ma’s taught him that.
Also, with ingenious delicacy, Donoghue shows readers the dreadful history that the boy doesn’t see fully. The jailer/rapist is scary for Jack but also nearly ludicrous. The dreadful privations of life in Room — absent good food, comforts, fresh air, and above all freedom — become more and more clear to us.
The novel’s arc moves up to the excitement and terror of escape — extraordinary details here, with brave Jack wrapped in the same Rug on which Ma gave birth to him — into the “real” world. Donoghue then shows vividly the ways in which that one’s full of prisoners too. People enjoy far more options than mother and son did in their old Room, yet often can’t recognize their freedom.
This is the only part of Room where the child narrator doesn’t quite work. So many medical and legal terms, so much about the complex family structure that Ma re-enters, transformed of course — in following Jack’s account, readers must give their willing suspension of disbelief a major work-out.
This flaw is made up for by the brilliant ending, when the child but not the parent knows what must be done before both can truly be out of prison — and that is to revisit Room. We know then that whenever Jack understands who his father is, he’ll be able to deal with that horror too.
Altogether, a fine book. A movie version is scheduled for this winter, and I look forward to it!