Sunday, October 10, 2010

#44: Room

Room is the second book I've read this year that features a child narrator. Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was my first, an affecting tale of an autistic boy named Christopher whose mathematical genius is accompanied by a fearful awe of his surrounding world. 

Room, written by Emma Donoghue -- who is, presumably, not a child but an author of several novels and story collections -- takes a different tack. Her young storyteller is Jack, a precocious five-year-old embodying all the usual toddler bells and whistles. Mainly, this entails asking the questions -- what, when, where, how, why -- that universally evoke terms of endearment at some times and frustrated outbursts at others.

What sets Jack apart from most of those in his age group is the setting. Jack lives with his mother in a room, or Room, an eleven-by-eleven-foot square that circumscribes his micro-existence. Befitting his age, the objects in Jack's life are capitalized and personified: "Ma leans out of Bed to switch on Lamp, he makes everything light up whoosh." What little he is told of the world outside he categorizes as "Outer Space" or "in TV," as when he informs the reader that "dogs are only TV." His is a relatively happy existence whose tranquility is punctured only by the occasionally erratic behavior of his Ma.

Ma harbors very different sentiments regarding her life in Room. As the story progresses, we are gradually exposed to the horrifying, gruesome reality of her imprisonment. A man identified only as "Old Nick" arrives, sporadically, some nights; Ma puts Jack to sleep in the wardrobe beforehand because, she says, "I just don't want him looking at you." For his part, Jack explains his mother's mysterious nocturnal visitor thusly: "When Old Nick creaks Bed, I listen and count fives on my fingers, tonight it's 217 creaks. I always have to count till he makes that gaspy sound and stops."

Room opens on Jack's fifth birthday, and life within the bubble is worsening. He receives a present of a remote-controlled Jeep, begged for by his mother, that Old Nick brings from Outside. One night Jack drives it off a shelf and onto the bed from his nook in the wardrobe while Old Nick is there. The man explodes in anger, and the next morning, after he has left, "we're eating oatmeal and I see marks. 'You're dirty on your neck.' Ma just drinks some water, the skin moves when she swallows. Actually that's not dirt, I don't think."

These intimate details, recounted in infantile vocabulary, render the pair's nightmare in viscerally vivid color, as Jack struggles to connect his increasing understanding of the larger world with the quotidian details of perpetual confinement. Emma Donoghue ably reconciles the perfectly believable innocence of a child with a narrative more aligned with the horror genre. Despite the occasional misstep (especially late in the book, when some dialogue strains the limits of readers' credulity), Donoghue paints a masterful portrait of a mother in distress and the indomitable spirit of the child whose only goal is to save her.

1 comment:

  1. I like your observation about how Donoghue juxtaposes the innocence of the narrative voice with facts and circumstances more befitting of a horror story--it's this jarring mixture that made the book so compelling for me. I can't decide whether this filtering of a horrific experience through the eyes of a child somehow cushions the impact of the story, or makes it all the more wrenching (though I suspect that the author meant to do both). I'm usually wary of first-person narratives, but writing convincingly as a five-year-old takes a lot of skill and imagination, and I think she pulls it off here. As you pointed out, Jack comes off as both endearing and frustrating at times, just like any young child does.

    I'm curious, though: what parts of the dialogue did you find to strain "the limits of... credulity"?