Today I'm five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I'm changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero. "Was I minus numbers?"
"Hmm?" Ma does a big stretch.
"Up in Heaven. Was I minus one, minus two, minus three - ?"
"Nah, the numbers didn't start till you zoomed down."
"Through Skylight. You were all sad till I happened in your tummy."
"You said it." Ma leans out of Bed to switch on Lamp, he makes everything light up whoosh.
I shut my eyes just in time, then open one a crack, then both. (p. 3)
Emma Donoghue's 2010 Booker Prize-nominated novel, Room, is one of the more intriguing novels that I have read this year. It contains some sordid details of a horrific kidnapping/rape, but the story is not as much about that. There are some excellent psychological portrayals here, yet instead of discussing them too directly, she employs a precocious and yet socially-limited five year-old, Jack, as the narrator. Some might see Room as being a book about parent/child development in the face of terrible mistreatment, but I suspect that it is a simple matter of spaces and boundaries that help define and shape this excellent novel.
Look at the opening passage that I quote above. Accept, if you can, that Jack is not a typical five-year old. Not only is he the product of the rape of his mother by her abductor, he is defined by very strict parameters: an eleven-by-eleven foot room (Room) inside a converted outdoor shed that is isolated from the world around. It is a small, confined world, mostly deprived of those little elements that we take for granted: free movement, breezes, sunlight, and open and willing interaction with other human beings. It is a claustrophobic space, one that is only barely disguised by Jack's labels for its features: Wardrobe, Bed, Skylight, Spider, Kit, Spoon. With these very limited features, Donoghue manages to create a plausible, believable mini-world that is memorable not just for what is occurring nightly within Jack's limited comprehension of her mother's rapes at the hands of "Old Nick," but for how adapted Jack and (to a much lesser extent) his mother are to their confined environment.
It is very tricky to emulate a child's voice and at times, Jack's narrative, littered with references not just to some works of art and literature that his mother was permitted to keep in this "Room," but also to signs of abstract thinking that just is not very prevalent in children before the age of ten or so, just is not very believable. But this inability to suspend disbelief gradually changes when it becomes apparent that not only is he a precocious and observant child, but that within the narrative, there are some troubling emotional attachment manifestations that become more pronounced as the story progresses.
The plot revolves not around the kidnapping/sequestering as much as it does around relationships of space, place, and people. Although Jack does not understand the specifics of "Old Nick's" nightly visit to his mother, there is a sense of fear and dread that is all the more terrifying because we know more what is happening than he does. Donoghue may have developed Jack to be precocious, but it is when he is at a loss that we truly begin to piece together those narrative elements that he is unable or unwilling to comprehend. This adds a layer of depth to his character and to his environs that is subtle and deep, a stark contrast to the innocent, caring narrator.
The last two sections of this novel, roughly comprising one-half of Room, have been problematic for other reviewers. Due to the shift away from Room and to the outside world, there is a marked shift in the narrative away from Jack and Ma and Room toward Jack, only sometimes Ma, and things very different from Room. Connotations that previously were lacking for expressions such as "getting some" are now revealed in ways that surprise and perhaps horrify not just the other characters now appearing, but also certain readers. What if we had grown up in a confined space and had only a limited palette of words and concepts for what surrounded us? What if we were removed to a whole new "world," one whose shapes, features, and mores differ significantly from ours?
There are times where Donoghue's story tries too hard. Perhaps it is in those scenes away from Room, where too many allusions to the relationship problems others have with themselves, with Jack, or with his mother are made, that some believe slow down the plot. Certainly, there were several instances where it felt as though the problems raised were extraneous to the plot. In trying to show dysfunction through the eyes of a child who has never known "normalcy," Donoghue often distracts the reader too much.
However, this is a minor complaint. Room was a great read due to how adroitly Donoghue explores relationships. Jack and his mother are quirky yet interesting characters. Despite the nightly horrors each endured (even if Jack did not possess the knowledge necessary to understand just what "rape" entails), the way that each has learned to make his or her peace with the surroundings makes this novel an absorbing read. The disorientation that Jack experiences (and we, through him) in the last two sections of the novel are all the more powerful to us because Donoghue has constructed her tale in such a fashion that we are able to "accept," in a limited fashion, their enclosed "world." When everything broadens, the reader may feel lost and confused as to what Jack is experiencing, because it is "our" world that he is literally experiencing for the first time and we grasp much more of it than he is able to do. But by novel's end, there is a glimmer of hope that this disorientation and dysfunction that Jack and his mother experience will lessen and that recovery from their ordeals can now begin. Room becomes, ultimately, a beginning of awareness and not the end of hope and, sometimes, that makes all the difference. Highly recommended.