Friday, November 5, 2010

Room - Emma Donoghue


Ever since I finished Room for my Books, Babes and Bordeaux book club, I've been racking my brain for some other piece of literature - anything - that I've read recently that is even close in comparison to its brilliance, cleverness and uniqueness. Nothing comes to mind. I've read lots of wonderful books this year, ones that had original narrators (The Art of Racing in the Rain), were brain-twisters (The City and The City), or simply veered off the well-traveled path (Coffee and Fate, The Financial Lives of the Poets). Still, Room shines like a beacon.

A feeble attempt at a synopsis: Jack just turned 5 years old. Unbeknownst to Jack, his mother was kidnapped 7 years ago by Old Nick and locked in a twelve by twelve room, where she gave birth to Jack and has struggled to raise him. Old Nick brings them their food, and Sundaytreat of their choosing when they have behaved. When they fight back or misbehave in any way, they are punished physically or mentally.

To Jack, the world IS Room, and everything that he sees on television, is unreal. Ice cream isn't real. Dogs aren't real. Fresh air isn't real. Rain isn't real. His world is Wardrobe (where he sleeps when Old Nick is visiting), Rug, Toothpaste, Mirror, Plant, Books, and Ma. Each item in Jack's tiny world has been assigned a proper name, indicating the importance and intimate relationship he has with each thing.

Ma has established a routine for their days. They watch just a little bit of television (not too much though), they read, they exercise, they nap, they eat, they play games, they bathe, they wash their clothes. This is a mother who wants nothing more than to do right (or as right as she can) by her baby.

My thoughts: By now, you may be mumbling "I'm not hearing anything original here. Stories like this have been around forever. They're depressing." Yes, but I bet none of them were narrated by the 5 year-old. Donoghue has performed something just short of a literary miracle...she has embodied the voice of a very smart little boy in a very disturbing situation. What could have been hokey or unbelievable or just a plain disaster instead manages to get under your skin, into your heart and on your mind for weeks after you have turned the last page. This lady nailed it.

It is even hard for me to imagine the implications. What perspective could a 5 year-old have if he had never talked to anyone but his mother, never felt rain on his face, or been able to run up and down stairs? Never taken a shower? Never had immunizations or a doctor's visit of any kind? What would be the damage done? Never even mind that. How do you write like a 5 year-old thinks? I couldn't do that, even if my kids were that age again.

What is fascinating is how Donoghue subtly depicts things that are beyond a 5 year-old's comprehension. Ma's depression and her internal struggle with the injustice being wrought on her child (when Jack calmly describes her as being Gone). When Old Nick visits at night (when Jack counts the number of creaks made on Ma's bed). Ma's occasional frustration with being cooped up with an inquisitive toddler (hello? I remember those days! It would be enough to drive you insane).

When I first started the book, I was restless. I felt claustrophobic. Ma and Jack's routine day after day after day made me nutty, and I really wanted to stop reading. I found myself (secretly) disgusted...breastfeeding a kid at this age? I guess I understood why, but I found the whole narrative of "wanting some" and liking the left side best to be extremely offensive. I was sickened by the crime itself, and I wanted to rip out Old Nick's throat. But then things started rockin', and I couldn't flip the pages fast enough. Myself and another member of my book club (and fellow football mom) found ourselves sitting in the bleachers between Saturday football games frantically trying to finish the book. I think what I'm trying to say is that it pretty much covered the full range of human emotion.

I think part of the brilliance and horror of the book is the not knowing. Almost like you are trapped in Room yourself, wondering if you will ever emerge. So I'm going to leave a majority of the plot to your own discovery. It wouldn't be right to tell you any more. Just trust me when I tell you that you must read it.

What the book club thought: One of our members is 8 months pregnant - she didn't get past page 30 (which I can fully understand). The rest of us, however, were equally blown away. We were sickened, we were touched, we were mightily impressed. We spent a significant amount of time discussing breast-feeding, unspoken societal rules about whipping out a boob in public, and offering it to a child that can walk and talk and do math. While some published reviews had issues with Jack's maturity at such a young age, most of us felt it was plausible. We felt this was one of the best books we'd read as a group ever.


5 out of 5 stars

26 comments:

Nymeth said...

I think I've only seen one negative review of this to date, so part of me fears I'll approach it with unreasonably high expectations! I might let some time pass before I pick it up just to be on the safe side, but I really hope I'll eventually join you in the love it camp.

JoAnn said...

Fascinating review, Sandy... just don't know if I'm going to be able to handle this one.

bermudaonion said...

Fantastic review! I have to say I thought the nursing was strange at first, but after a while, it seemed perfectly natural - there was no reason for her to stop it.

Alyce said...

This isn't my normal type of read, but everyone seems to be singing its praises. I haven't made my mind up about it yet because I don't know if I'm ready for something that upsetting.

Nise' said...

I've got this one in print and audio, not sure which one I am going to go with.

farmlanebooks said...

I'm so pleased that you loved this one too. I think you are right - it is all about what is left unsaid. I'm quite jealous that you had a whole book group to talk to about this one - there is so much to discuss. It is my book of the year by a long way :-)

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I've heard so much about this book and I love your review! I know I need to stop being lazy and pick this one up -- I was a bonehead and somehow didn't see this one at SIBA to pick up!

Trisha said...

I know I have to pick this one up, but since I read Living Dead Girl just a short time ago, I really don't feel ready for another emotionally draining story focused on horrific child abuse. Perhaps in a few more months...

Zibilee said...

When I spoke with Emma Donoghue at SIBA, she mentioned the fact that it was easy for her to write a lot of the scenes between Jack and Mas because she had children of that age running around at the time. I still think it's amazing that she got the book so right in terms of narrative voice though.

I am also envious that you got the chance to share this book with your book club. I would have loved to be part of that discussion!

This has to be my favorite book of the year, and it's one that I know I am going to want to read again. Wonderful and thoughtful review!

marthalama said...

Thank you for a great review. I've been on the fence about this book. I know it's one of those books I will be blown away by but will be very hard to read. It seems to be a story I need to prepare myself to read. I'm thinking I'll have to wait until after the holidays for this one.

Julie P. said...

Well said! I loved it too!

Kathleen said...

Wow Sandy, this is an incredible review. I purchased this a few weeks ago and can't believe I haven't read it yet!

Teacher/Learner said...

Sounds like an incredible reading experience! It is amazing how a child's voice is interpreted realistically by an adult author. I'll be getting a copy of this very soon :)

caite said...

I must agree, this was a great book.

Kate {The Parchment Girl} said...

I just spotted another review of this book on another blog... I have to say I'm intrigued by the book, but I'm not sure if I'll read it. It's kind of intense. But if I'm ever in the mood for an intense read I'll definitely start with this one!

Jenners said...

Oh ... I hate following you on reviews.

This was such a unique and amazing book. I'm still thinking about it, and wondering how to do it justice.

And it took me awhile to catch on to what "some" was. (I'm so lame.) I figured it was her only way to give him as much nutrition as possible ... I didn't think they got milk that often after all. I wasn't grossed out by it ... I think she did what she had to do to keep him as healthy as possible.

And you're right ... she manages to convey such horror through a 5-year-old's eyes.

Well done!

The Bumbles said...

I first read about this on Jo-Jo's blog - thank you for reminding me about it. I was really excited to delve into it and then it got buried on my virtual shelves.

Alice Teh said...

I was dying to read this book yet I know I won't be doing it within these two months. I almost bought it at the bookstore but I restrained myself. I wanted this book so much. I promise me I'd pick this up next year.

lovely treez said...

I've only seen one negative review of this too - I think it will definitely feature in many folks' Top Ten this year, including my own!

Melissa M said...

You know I loved this one too. Jack's voice was just so original, and just worked so well. I can totally see the nursing being a great part of your book club discussion.

Melody said...

I don't think I've seen a negative review of this book, yet. I like it that the narrator was a 5-year-old boy; I find it so interesting and not to mention refreshing (for I haven't read such a young narrator to date). Can't wait to read this soon!

Gavin said...

Great review, Sandy. I'm right there with you about that feeling of restlessness and claustrophobia. I definitely had the same sensations when starting "Room". The more I think about it, the more I love it.

Ti said...

I think I'm ready to take the plunge and read this. I've been putting it off because of the subject matter. I mean, nothing about it screams "read me" really. It's just one of those books that you know you have to read.

Iliana said...

I so want to read this book. I have such high expectations of it too. Everyone loves and I've read one of her other books which I thought was fabulous too so the excitement is building up! Wonderful review Sandy.

Jen - devourer of books said...

I think I really am going to have to read this sooner rather than later.

Anna said...

Wow, I already wanted to read this one, but your review makes me think I need to read it NOW. Oh, if only there were more hours in the day!