by Emma Donoghue
321 pages, Picador
Review by Marc Nash
"Room" deservedly belongs on the Mann Booker Prize shortlist. It is both an extraordinary feat of writing and a remarkable voice. However, for this reviewer, I also found myself on the outside of the viscerally emotive theme of the novel. Not a reaction I was anticipating, seeing as I knew it had been based on the Josef Fritzl sexual hostage case in Austria.
The narrator is a five year old boy born into captivity in the garden shed adapted to hold his sex-slave mother hostage. The voice is accelerated beyond his tender years, since he has had an intensity of 24-7 access to his mother who is determined to rear him to the maximum of her abilities within their reduced circumstances. They only have five books, but he is literate beyond their limits because of mother and son's mutual storytelling. They also have a television, but he has been led to believe there is no existence beyond the Room's interior. He conceives that cookery programmes come from a cookery planet, pop music from a music planet and so on. Whereas items within the room such as a rug or lamp are capitalised as proper nouns and related to through his animist 'world' view.
Donoghue's conception of the language, logic and imagination of a five year old are exceptionally realised. I have no idea how they match to reality, since I cannot recall what abilities I had at age 5, nor could I project it into such a situation as Jack finds himself. But I can certainly appreciate the creativity of the games mother and child formulate with the bits and pieces of left-over packaging and other found objects and even empty space itself. Donoghue's imagination here is simply astounding.
Yet I do find myself outside the powerful pull of the whole scenario, because a five year old voice can only take adult me so far. I want to know what's going on inside the mother's head, as she is raped on a nightly basis, yet strives to shield Jack both from the predator and the harsh realities of the unseen world just the other side of the barred door. I get the dimensions of Jacks' almost limitless world of imagination, but not the shrunken ones of hers. I too am protected by the fantastical and imaginative projections of what the world constitutes as offered up by Jack in a somewhat velvety view. Of course Donoghue has made a creative choice to restrict the point of view to Jack's and only filter certain things from the mother via him. But I am reminded of another powerful and yet flawed book, "We Need To Talk About Kevin" where the mother's point of view was mesmerisingly portrayed, yet virtually every word concerning the troubled teen Kevin failed to illuminate a single thing about him.
It is not that adult literature can't be led by a child's voice, Safran Foer ("Up Close And Incredibly Loud") and Mark Haddon ("The Curious Incident...") both pull it off, albeit with slightly older protagonists. The voice and childlike conceptualisation are a bit more sophisticated in these. Here I am having to perform much transliteration from a five year old to put it into that of my own terms. While I can and do appreciate Donoghue's skill in rendering this five year old imagination, it leaves me intellectually marvelling rather than emotionally. This probably says more about me than it does about Donoghue.
But even intellectually there is so much to admire. The revelation and slow acceptance of the world beyond the Room is beautifully paced and depicted. Jack comes to see that people don't live inside the television, that they are actors, except when he is briefly exposed to the news reporting of his own story. Donoghue treats sensitively the boy's confusion over his Mother lying to him, spinning him lies only to protect him and the moment that she unravelled the truth signalling the beginning of their escape plan. The second half of the book, when they are in the outside world, sees Jack having to piece together the levels of reality almost from scratch. At this point the book is very much in Kaspar Hauser territory and again loses some of its sharp originality. The world they emerge into is a wholly mundane one of grandparents, shopping malls and brattish children. But the fact that Jack keeps bumping into things because of his foreshortened visual calibration from being cooped up all his life, is a tantalisingly tender reminder of what just lies beneath.
So a far from fully satisfying read, yet one I would recommend anyway.