The first Emma Donoghue book I read was Slammerkin, and it quite swiftly cemented my love for her writing. In Slammerkin, Donoghue took the real-life incident of a maid in 18th-century England who murdered her mistress and molded it into an absorbing story about class oppression, sexuality, and the role of women’s fashion in shaping desire and the abject, terrifying quest for beauty and power. Kissing the Witch, a collection of fairy tale retellings, was my next Donoghue. Along with The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, these books were propitious in my initial estimation of Donoghue’s writing, showing her to be a writer with a sublime gift for language and an unerring capacity to be both fluidly intelligent and emotionally astute in proportion to the complexity of the subject matter.
One could not, however, avoid hearing about her most recent fiction release, Room – its Booker nomination alone ensured that it would join other nominees in becoming one of those books you’ll quickly tire of without even having read it. Perhaps more intriguingly, Room is also a book that ensures the reader already comes to it with plenty of emotional baggage. The story is loosely based on the 2008 case of Austrian Josef Fritzl, who imprisoned his own daughter in a cellar for 24 years and, among other things, raped her – resulting in seven children, all of whom were born in that cellar and had never been outside of it. Room opens its door into the world of five-year-old Jack and his “Ma”, who was imprisoned when she was 19-years-old by a man Jack refers to as “Old Nick” – not Ma’s father in this story, but a stranger-abductor.
This concept of “outside” – as opposed to a familiar and comforting inside – is the theme in Room, and while we’re on the inside as it were, it seems somehow fitting that we see it only through the eyes of five-year-old Jack. Jack was born in Room (as he refers to it), and it is for the first half of the book the only world he knows. Within the space of 11-square-feet, Jack and Ma have solidly built a spare material life rich in imagination that is equal parts reality and myth. The myth, for Jack, comprises the shreds and slices of the “real world” that come to him through the television screen. His mother, like all parents, has given him answers that sometimes serve to bare the truth or obfuscate it. When his mother starts telling him, in bits and pieces, about her former life in Outside and her past history, Jack pretends to play this game with her – to him, naturally, Outside is only what he’s seen on TV, and thus believes to be fiction: “I hold on to her hand. She wants me to believe so I’m trying to but it hurts my head. ‘You actually lived in TV one time?’”
The precociousness of Jack’s thoughts sometimes seem impossible or too contrived until one checks oneself for assuming to know what is mentally and emotionally possible for a child, especially one who has grown up knowing only one person and one place. The more intriguing aspects of Room are the sections of the book that take place within the room. Donoghue is deft and sure in sketching out the details of the relationship between a mother and her son and the relation of that relationship to the space around it. In our current living, much of our relations to others are defined by the spaces we inhabit and the boundaries we consciously or unconsciously erect around us. Room throws the concept of boundaries all asunder – who, after all, can better test your boundaries than the child that is always underfoot? – while still reminding the reader that the story is framed within the most rigid boundary of all: imprisonment.
Yet what initially started out as the story’s strength – Jack’s voice and his character – starts to wear thin when the situation abruptly changes after Jack and his mother have staged their daring yet successful escape. This is odd, as one would expect the parts where Jack acclimatises himself to Outside, or more precisely society and its arbitrary and befuddling norms and mores, to be arresting and both emotionally and intellectually compelling. However, the narrative feels burdened and obligatory from here on; it stops being a story propelled forward by the logic of its internal momentum, and becomes more of an obligatory and tedious documentation recited by an increasingly sterile and cloying child’s voice.
It’s hard to tell what marks Jack’s shift from unique and engaging narrator to a banal one; perhaps hard to sustain the momentum of a child’s perspective for 300 or so pages in a story infused with the tragedy and despair of general human awfulness. The novel weakens precisely where the authorial intention starts to come between the reader and the fictitious character on the page. Writing a book like Room from an impartial point of view is difficult; yet it’s exactly what Donoghue set out to do by using Jack’s voice as the reader’s sole guide. Jack doesn’t know good from bad where his own situation is concerned; he simply is. It is the only type of life he’s known. He absorbs feelings, intuitions, and thoughts about his special circumstance from his mother, but in the sections of the book where they’re back into society, one gets the impression that Jack is simply thinking all the thoughts his mother would, had Donoghue told it from her point of view. She didn’t, so we get hackneyed “my mom and I vs. the world” –type moments as shown through a botched interview attempt between his mother and a talk show host, or scenes where his mother defends her practice of breastfeeding him even though he’s already five.
The mess of feelings engendered by the story had already solidified into irritation towards the last quarter of Room, but melted into welcome relief as the final page was turned. It’s certainly a new response to Donoghue’s writing – regardless of whether or not one liked her previous books, it could never be said that those books were tiresome. Her writing was always undercut by a ferocious intelligence, reflective of a keenly curious mind. Room, perhaps understandably, tries to sweeten the abject tale of horror at the centre of the narrative, but I’m afraid the resulting aftertaste is rather bland.