Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Emma Donoghue's Room

I will admit that I resisted picking up this book for some time, despite reading numerous laudatory reviews, because of its subject matter. In case you haven't come across these reviews of the Booker-shortlisted novel, the first half is set in the small, locked room in which a woman and her small child are held captive. The child, Jack, conceived, born, and raised for five years while his mother is the sex slave of the man they call Nick, is a remarkable fictional achievement, a generous and credible and redemptive work of imagination. So all the reviews promised me, but I still felt I couldn't stand to spend any time contemplating the evil involved.

Donoghue, though, manages to put evil in its place. She doesn't deny it, but neither does she allow it to occlude the humanity it tries to destroy. Jack's mother protects her son's innocence remarkably without hampering his need to understand and deal with their reality, and she finds ways to keep their very sequestered, very limited life rich and full of intellectual, physical, creative, and emotional stimulation. This part of the book alone is worth the darkness entailed.

But there's so much more.  Jack and Ma's re-entry into the wider world twists the reader's perspective in intriguing, entertaining, and informative ways. Despite the limitations of his previous home, Room, Jack has personified its spartan elements -- Bed and Wardrobe and Rug and Plant --to provide comfort as well as surprisingly rich fodder for his imagination. In contrast, children in the larger world (his newfound cousin, for example) appear dissatisfied and over-stimulated, less thoughtful and more demanding, with their surfeit of material goods and limitless activities. The media frenzy and audience fascination with mother and son similarly casts our society in a questionable light, particularly when Ma argues with her TV interviewer about the priorities implied in the sensationalizing questions.

Above all, the novel is redemptive and beautiful. Jack and Ma's relationship is tender and wise and accommodating. And has one of the most compelling representations of breast-feeding you will ever read.

I couldn't help but compare Jack to the rather terrifying young boy in the first section of Nancy Huston's Fault Lines, a young boy whose innocence his family believes in yet who surfs the Internet regularly trying to puzzle out images of violence and sexuality. In many ways, although Jack spends his first five years regularly hiding in the Wardrobe listening to Old Nick's phallic thrusts reverberating through his mother's bed, he is much more innocent than Huston's creation.

If, like me, you have heard about this book but are deterred by its subject matter, I have to say that you should at least try a chapter or two standing in the aisle at the bookstore. I know you'll be drawn to read more, and you'll be glad you did. Let me know . . . As always, I appreciate your comments and look forward to our discussions.


  1. I'm always worried that books with this subject matter are going to be somehow prurient ... rather like a tabloid newspaper expose, but this sounds anything but. I've picked it up a few times in the bookshop. Next time I'll buy it!

  2. That's exactly what I worried about, Tiffany, but I think you'll agree with me that the book does something much different, very worthwhile, and ultimately redemptive in a powerful, not at all facile, way. Let me know if you do read it.

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