I once read a quote by a writer – can’t remember which one, unfortunately – that went something like, ‘Writing is my way of grieving for what I read in the headlines’. It can surely be applied to Irish author Emma Donoghue’s new novel, the Booker long-listed – and much talked about – Room.
“Jack is five, and excited about his birthday. He lives with his Ma in Room, which has a locked door and a skylight, and measures eleven feet by eleven feet. He loves watching TV, and cartoon characters he calls friends, but he knows that nothing he sees on screen is truly real – only him, Ma, and the things in Room. Until the day Ma admits there’s a world outside…”
With Donoghue admitting – and no review, article or interview failing to mention it – that the horrific Joseph Fritzl story planted the idea for this book in her brain, I was expecting a harrowing, dark and disturbing tale that would leave me upset and unsettled. And I was prepared to read it – one of my all time favourite books is Lionel Schriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, another disturbing novel inspired by true life events, i.e. a spate of school shootings in the US. (And by favourite I don’t mean enjoyable, as you can’t really enjoy a book like that. I mean as I was reading it it punched a hole in my chest and shoved my heart up into my mouth, opened my eyes to truths I’d known but hadn’t recognized, both about myself and the world, and then left me wandering around for days afterwards, unable to put its pages out of my head. That’s how much it effected me.)
But that’s not at all the book I got.
Now, maybe I read a few too many Karin Slaughters or watch a few too many documentaries on the Crime channel, or maybe reading Ann Rule’s Stranger Beside Me frightened me so much that I was numb to everything else that came afterwards, but on no level did I find this book disturbing. Upsetting in parts, yes, definitely. But disturbing? No.
This is partly – mostly – because of our wonderful narrator, five-year-old Jack; his language and perspective give as light a touch to the storytelling as something of this nature could possibly have. There is not one gratuitous mention of violence, pain or evil in the world book – Donoghue, through Jack, only tells us what she has to, and even then it’s done gently. ‘Scream’, for example, is not a desperate attempt to attract help or rescue, but a game Jack and his Ma play together on the same day every week.
Moreover, the differences between this story and the real life horror that inspired its telling are not insignificant: Ma has been in Room for seven years or since she was 19, she is not related to their captor, ‘Old Nick’ and they ‘enjoy’ things like natural light and television. And Room is only the setting for the beginning of the book – Ma and Jack stage a daring escape, opening the door to the outside world and the novel’s real story: Jack’s new life in Outside and what he makes of it.
Maybe I’d feel differently about it if I was a mother myself, but being the same age as Ma was as much as I can claim in the empathy stakes.
There is one little thing in the book that left me feeling… I think distressed is the best word. And having laughed at myself for picking out that particular thing as upsetting in a book about a mother and son held captive by a rapist in a space eleven feet by eleven, Ma said the same thing to a snotty reporter. Under the circumstances, nursing a five-year-old fits – I don’t think it was that itself that, um, distressed me. I think it was more reading about breast-feeding from the child’s point of view, something I hope I never do again.
I know some people won’t read this book because of what they think it is but what Room really is is a story about a mother’s love for her son, and how far the natural instincts of mothering can take a woman with nothing else – no family, books, medical professionals or experience – at her disposal. Jack is a wonderful character whose take on the modern world made me laugh in places – as did his love for that animated she-devil, Dora the Explorer – and reading it left me feeling uplifted and grateful. As for Donoghue, her imagination is just staggering, her treatment of the topic sensitive, and her book truly original. It was also surprisingly readable for a book that’s probably going to make it to the Booker shortlist. (The White Tiger, I’m looking at you.)
While I wouldn’t bestow the hyperbole smeared all over Room‘s cover by the likes of John Boyne, Audrey Niffenegger and Michael Cunningham, I do wholeheartedly agree with Anita Shreve who said, ‘I loved Room. Such incredible imagination, and dazzling use of language. And with all this, an entirely credible, endearing little boy. It’s unlike anything I’ve read before.’