I’ve been reading some fucked up books about kids lately. First there was Kevin, a mass murderer trapped in a teenager’s body, whose dubious childhood raised the question (or rather, made the assertion) that some people are just born off.
And now I’ve spent a week with Jack, the five-year-old protagonist of Emma Donoghue’s Room, whose entire universe consists of an eleven-by-eleven-foot soundproofed shed. Which brings up an entirely different question: If Kevin, raised with everything, can grow up to be a shit, can Jack, raised with nearly nothing, grow up to be normal?
I should clarify: Jack and his mother don’t live in a shed by choice. Rather, said mother (who remains nameless throughout the novel) was kidnapped some seven years before Room takes place, by a man who has over the years raped her repeatedly, resulting in one stillborn child and another—Jack. The novel is told from Jack’s perspective, as a disarmingly content child who sees nothing necessarily strange about his living situation, or his mother’s assertion that what’s inside the room is real, whereas everything on television—which she only lets him watch in short bursts—is fantasy. Jack is accustomed to routine, attached to rules and feels only occasionally stifled by his limited environment. In fact, until Jack’s mother latches onto the idea of staging an escape, the duo exist in something sickly akin to normalcy inside their furnished prison cell.
If you watch the news, Room is eerily reminiscent of Jaycee Dugard, who was kidnapped in 1991 at age 11 and held hostage for more than 18 years. While in captivity, she gave birth to two daughters, who were 11 and 15 when she was discovered last year. (Ironically, a follow-up interview between Dugard and Diane Sawyer is airing today.) But Donoghue takes care to note that no one case inspired her novel, and that Dugard in particular wasn’t found until after the book published.
Nor does it really matter: The strength of Room isn’t that it’s similar to true cases (any more than the strength of We Need To Talk about Kevin was its similarity to Columbine and other school shootings.) Rather, what makes this book so unique is its narrator, and our ability as readers to experience such an atrocity through the eyes of a child too naive to understand it. Without giving anything away, Jack’s take on the “normalcy” of living in such a small space, and interacting with no one except his mother, is more heartbreaking than the knowledge of the pair’s imprisonment. Further, as Jack’s mother loses her resolve to shield him from knowledge of the outside world (admitting in fits and spurts that not everything on television is fake) we are privy to Jack’s reactions as he is forced to reexamine his entire concept of reality.
Donoghue admits that some of her ability to write from the perspective of a five-year-old came from her son (who was five at the time she wrote the novel) and the true-to-life quality of Jack’s character definitely comes out in the way he plays, speaks and interacts with his mother. But even if Donoghue’s secret weapon was a living breathing boy, whose words and actions she could mimic, the development of a compelling and truly suspenseful novel from the vantage point of a veritable toddler is still a feat to be admired. Room is never simplistic, or boring, or even limited by its narrator. Rather, without Jack’s perspective, the book would be a different novel entirely.
It’s funny—when I was a kid, I used to enjoy imagining how various small rooms might accommodate my life. I’d sit in my mom’s bathroom—spacious but certainly not apartment-sized—and draw up mental plans for where a bed could go, where the refrigerator might fit, how I would squeeze in a couch. Perhaps as a child I was whatever the opposite of claustrophobic is, or maybe I was, even then, a New Yorker in waiting. But never did I actually think what it might be like to be confined to a master bathroom, or locked inside the basement laundry room. (Let alone with my mother.) Jack’s adaptability to a life that to even the most imaginative child (with a penchant for small-scale interior decorating) would be torture, is bizarre and admirable and thought-provoking all at the same time.
Room was one of the New York Times’ 10 Best Books of the Year in 2010, and made the shortlist of vacation reading for President Barack Obama, so there’s plenty of critical acclaim to back up my assertion that this is a really phenomenal read. I finished it in three days last week, which you’d think would mean I chose some ambitious 500-page tome to fill the intervening days and segue into this week. ….I watched about 600 old episodes of Law & Order instead.
AUTHOR: Emma Donoghue
PAGES: 321 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Slammerkin, The Sealed Letter
SORTA LIKE: Life of Pi meets Flowers in the Attic
FIRST LINE: “Today I’m five.”