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