Published by Hachette Book Group, Little, Brown and Company on 13th September 2010
Genres: Adult, Contemporary
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To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he was born and grew up; it's where he lives with his Ma as they learn and read and eat and sleep and play. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits.
Room is home to Jack, but there is much and more to it than he realizes, and his life is soon to change forever when the world that he knows is pushed open in ways that he never knew were possible.
A fairly brief review this week, dear readers, as I do my best to reintegrate myself into a routine of regular reading and posting. I hope to return to my former position of writing more consistently and in more depth in time, I assure you.
Room is a difficult book to discuss, because it is one that is best read in ignorance. The more one knows of the story and its characters, the less powerful the experience becomes. The above summary may tell too much already, as even broader generalities have the potential to dim Emma Donoghue’s work. It is a piece so different in its narrative decisions and presentation that prior knowledge of any sort has the unfortunate consequence of spoiling the emotional strength that comes as an essential component to its power, and so I urge anyone interested to avoid details as much as is possible.
Told from the perspective of a young boy who has grown up in the most troubling of circumstances, Room‘s language is a tad challenging to work through initially, because the protagonist’s worldview is one markedly different from the common reader’s. As a result, one is forced to adapt his or her own understanding of the everyday to that of the narrator Jack, to learn his language and sense of self and scope as he goes about what is, for him, an ordinary life. Now, devoting 300 pages to the mindset and viewpoint of a five-year-old child seems a gimmicky approach at best, an excuse for pretension done for the sake of reward and notability. Using such an odd perspective also comes ripe with the potential to fall flat if not handled extremely carefully, strongly risking as it does reader disinterest and frustration. Try too hard, and you either end up with writing that is far too simplistic to hold any kind of depth or real meaning, or with writing masked with so thin a veneer that it reads precisely as what it is: the words of a grown woman pretending to be a small boy. Donoghue, however, manages to toe the line between clarity and realism beautifully, creating a voice that seems to genuinely capture the innocence, confusion and wonder of a child while still telling a story of emotional significance and intense drama.
Yes, Room has a story to tell, regardless of what my vague descriptions may lead you to believe. What a story it is. It unfolds gradually, revealing new layers and explanations over time that continually force one to alter his or her understanding of what has come before. As Jack’s eyes are opened to the boundaries of his world and what exists beyond them, so too are the reader’s. What at first appears simple is revealed to be much more complicated, and one must be ready to challenge often assumptions established and opinions formed. Coming into the book knowing almost nothing is undoubtedly the best approach, because it ensures that nearly every page is a surprise, for better or worse. Using the limited scope of Jack’s understanding and reason, Donoghue builds her story slowly, hinting at underlying concepts while allowing the reader to put the pieces together before really hitting her stride about halfway through and taking the story in a completely unexpected direction. It is deep and yet remarkably simple, making the plot easy to become immersed in but rewarding to finish.
The cast, as limited as it is, feels undeniably real as a result. These individuals are complicated beings who are not meant to be heroes, or villains, or any other archetype. They are simply people, coping as best they can with circumstances that are frequently out of their control. They are frustrating at times, making mistakes and acting irrationally out of some misplaced or overblown emotion, but they are endearing at others, displaying a determination and strength that is nothing if not admirable. This company, young and old alike, is unabashedly and undeniably human, both remarkable and unremarkable in ways large and small. It is not the everyday work of fiction that manages to accomplish such a feat, to avoid the easy sentimentality and grandeur of established tropes and dependable character roles, but Donoghue does so with aplomb.
Think of Room as an experiment of sorts. It isn’t a lengthy or overly demanding piece, despite the hesitant progress and rereading that comes with its opening chapters and initially distracting presentation. It is the sort of book that, regardless of one’s final opinion, will stick to the back of the consciousness for days afterward, demanding contemplation and consideration. What should be taken from Jack’s story? Some lesson or moralistic declarative? A deeper appreciation for the writing process, perhaps, and the manner in which tales are told?
I do not know, and perhaps that is for the best. Every fiction need not be easily categorized or understood, after all. What I do know is that Donoghue has created something here that will inevitably leave a lasting impression upon one’s mind, both as reader and person, through her words, and that may be all that is important.