Room (by Emma Donoghue)

16 03 2011

There’s no doubt that Emma Donoghue’s Room has a certain appeal. How could a novel about a continuously abused woman and her 5-year-old bewildered yet completely innocent son Jack, who both live within the confinements of a 12-square-foot Room, not have an impact on your sense of compassion? You’d have to be an absolute brute not to be moved by little Jack, his Ma’s sense of duty and responsibility to teach him how to behave, to read and basically just to become who he is…, and her absolute instincts when it comes to protecting her son from her abuser Old Nick, and Outside (the outside world). The question is whether Donoghue has been able to create something that transcends the tearjerker formula?

Emma Donoghue took her inspiration from the real life Josef Fritzl case, but instead of focusing on the main perpetrator (Old Nick), or the initial main victim (Ma – her name is never given in the novel), Donoghue decides to show us things exclusively from the point of view of 5-year-old Jack. After Jack is born, Ma creates the world of Room for him, in a desperate attempt to give the boy a sense of normality. Everything in Room has a(n article-less) name, such as Rug, Wardrobe, Under Bed, Meltedy Spoon, etc. Ma teaches Jack about the world through TV (Dora the Explorer is Jack’s absolute favorite!). She builds up a healthy routine for him including Phys Ed, regular mealtimes, brushing teeth, etc.  After about a third of the book, Donoghue has her 2 main characters escape to Outside (an absolute plot necessity, but the way it is done feels a bit contrived at the same time) and this brings a whole set of different challenges for the two. Of course the most elemental of questions arises. Which is safer: inside Room or the world Outside? Inside Room Jack only felt the love and the warmth of his Ma. In Outside, Jack will have to share her. Is Jack ready for this… is Ma?

The reader sees everything through Jack’s eyes: his sense of familiarity in Room is ours, his sense of wonder, apprehension, excitement and fear in Outside is ours. It’s a fairly successful strategy to have Jack tell all, but I can’t but feel that sometimes Donoghue has tried to be a little too coy…

The bits and pieces of social commentary we hear through what Jack overhears in conversations between his Ma and the doctors, or the questions the interviewer asks when his Ma goes on an Oprah Winfrey type talk show, or the comments made by sociologists on the news programs at his Grandmother’s place,… all these are scattered around a little bit too neatly to my liking,… it’s all very deliberate too of course. Yes, yes, we get it,… there are some grand sociological or philosophical issues raised here. I mean, sociologically speaking and all that, what is worse: having no choice at all, or having too much choice? Somehow these little snippets of supposed wisdom detract from the seemingly honest and heartfelt love story (Ma – Jack) that Donoghue tries to tell.

Moreover, I can’t help but wonder whether Jack’s Voice really doesn’t have some inconsistencies? I guess that Donoghue wants to ask and answer some fundamental questions about child development (speech, motor skills, etc), like whether socialization is really absolutely necessary if you see what Jack is capable of, by only having his loving mother around. Ma even mentions Harry Harlow’s monkey experiment to Jack, and he gets it…? So Jack is supposed to be this boy-wonder, despite the fact that his growth is undoubtedly stunted . On the other hand, one of the key things about Jack’s Voice is his broken English. Though I totally believe that his speech would never be as good as a 5-year-old who did have social contact, the fact that Ma took care of his education the way she did (this is really vital to the story), some of the language issues Jack’s experiencing just wouldn’t be issues for him at all. For instance, he repeatedly makes the same mistake ( brung instead of brought), despite the fact that his mother corrects him over and over again. Boy-wonders don’t make those mistakes, not if they understand about Princess Diana’s tragic accident or the monkey experiment! There are also things Jack at first doesn’t seem to be able to name, but then a few pages later he does seem to know them… Does this show that Donoghue just uses Jack’s Voice as a gimmick, or worse… a sympathy ploy?

As I said before, Room has a certain appeal. It’s a quick and easy read, for one. Second, it’s an endearing love story. Combine that with the fact that it was on the New York Times’ ‘Best of 2010’ and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and you get an apparent bestseller. I was moved by the story too, but I can’t say I was blown away by Emma Donoghue’s literary flair.

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