Monday, November 8, 2010
Book Review - Room by Emma Donoghue
Ever since its Booker nomination (it made the shortlist), Room by Irish writer Emma Donoghue has set the literary world on fire. Most people who review the book seem to love it. They talk about how riveting and suspenseful the book is and how they felt compelled to finish it in a single reading. I guess I’ll have to be one of the few dissenting voices. I really, really, really disliked Room and yes, I do have specific reasons why.
I can’t imagine anyone not knowing the basic plot of Room, but for those who don’t, the book was inspired by the true story of Elisabeth Fritzl, an Austrian woman who had been imprisoned in her father’s basement for twenty-four years, during which time he repeatedly assaulted and raped her. She eventually bore him seven children and had one miscarriage. Three of her children, one daughter and two sons had been imprisoned with their mother for the whole of their lives (until rescue).
Room takes its basic plot from the Fritzl case as well as the cases of Jaycee Lee Dugard in California and of Natascha Kampusch and Sabine Dardenne.
Room is narrated by a young boy, Jack, who has just “celebrated” his fifth birthday. Jack has never known a human being other than his mother, who he calls “Ma.” “Ma,” we come to learn, was abducted one night at age nineteen on her way to the school library. For the past seven years she’s been held captive in a garden shed fitted with soundproofed cork, lead-lined walls, and a coded metal security door and raped repeatedly by her captor, a man she calls “Old Nick.” Two years into her abduction, “Ma” gave birth to a son, the five-year-old Jack mentioned above.
We soon learn that “Ma” has tried to make life as normal and as sane as possible for Jack as one can in a room that measures 11x11. She holds “Phys Ed” classes for Jack in the morning and tries to ensure that he gets some exercise. She insists that they keep to strict mealtimes. They do have a TV, and though “Ma” limits Jack’s TV watching just like any good parent would do, it is from TV that Jack learns about the outside world, that he learns the stories that “Ma” entertains him with are true ones. However, despite the fact that Jack has access to television, he really isn’t aware that anything exists outside of “Room.” Even “Old Nick” isn’t “real” to Jack because Jack’s always safe in “Wardrobe” when “Old Nick” comes through “Door.” All Jack really knows about “Old Nick” is that he “brings groceries and Sundaytreat and disappears the trash, but he's not human like us. He only happens in the night, like bats.... I think Ma doesn't like to talk about him in case he gets realer.”
I have to admit, I’ve never been fond of books narrated by children, but Room, for me, was especially odious. “Ma” has created characters out of all the objects in “Room” and Jack refers to them as though they are real, living, breathing persons. There’s “Wardrobe” and “Rug” and “Plant” and “Meltedy Spoon.” One page of this is bad enough, but an entire book? It took a lot of determination for me to finish the thing. Here’s Jack describing a typical day in “Room”:
We have thousands of things to do every morning, like give Plant a cup of water in Sink for no spilling, then put her back on her saucer on Dresser.... I count one hundred cereal and waterfall the milk that’s nearly the same white as the bowls, no splashing, we thank Baby Jesus.
And "waterfall the milk??????" I'm not impressed.
Regarding his TV watching, Jack says:
I'd love to watch TV all the time, but it rots our brains. Before I came down from Heaven Ma left it on all day long and got turned into a zombie that's like a ghost but walks thump thump. So now she always switches off after one show, then the cells multiply again in the day and we can watch another show after dinner and grow more brains in our sleep.
And here’s Jack talking about some “quiet time” with “Ma”:
I get on Ma’s lap in Rocker with our legs all jumbled up. She’s the wizard transformed into a giant squid and I’m prince JackerJack and I escape in the end. We do tickles and Bouncy Bouncy and jaggedy shadows on Bed Wall.
Well, a paragraph of that here and there might have worked, but a whole half of a book? Not on your life. And this is a kid who can sing along to Eminem and Woody Guthrie music videos. He knows the latest dances. He listens to people speak on TV. His own mother, the only person with whom he converses, speaks normally. He uses words like “rappelling” and “hippopotami” with ease. Heck, he even knows more about the fall of the Berlin Wall than many Germans. So what’s with the almost unintelligible baby talk? I know he’s only five, but other than his horrendous speech, he seems to be a very precocious five. And please. How many rundowns of “Dora the Explorer” or “Spongebob Squarepants” can one reader take without wanting to throw the book across the room?
(From here on this review will contain minor plot spoilers. Please don’t continue reading if plot spoilers will ruin the book for you.)
The story of Room is split into two parts, the first part occurring in “Room” and the second part occurring “Outside” after “Ma” and Jack escape. The escape is, to put it mildly, totally ludicrous. For a kid who doesn’t even believe the outside world exists, to do what Jack did is beyond belief. It’s like Donoghue didn’t know what she wanted her book to be – the claustrophobic story of captivity inside a small room and how it limits the emotional and intellectual growth of a five-year-old or how a five-year-old who’s been imprisoned in an 11x11 room all his life can mature and be a hero. None of us, including Donoghue, can have it both ways.
Once we realize that Jack and “Ma” (we never do learn her name) are being held captive, one would think that Room would take on a sinister, suspenseful atmosphere and leave us wondering what “Old Nick” is going to do next. Instead, it’s painfully boring and slow going and almost totally lacking in suspense. Because Donoghue confines her point of view, at least in the first half of the book, to Jack, the insight we get is painfully mundane, and well, boring. When we finally reach the unbelievable “escape” from “Room,” it all feels forced and shallow and contrived.
Some people have made the remark that Donoghue captures perfectly the voice of a young child. I don’t think she does. I don’t even think she captures perfectly the voice of a young child who’s been imprisoned and cut off from the world for all of his five years of life. However, for the sake of argument, let’s just say that Donoghue does capture a five-year-old’s speech pattern perfectly. How many books written by five-year-olds do you find engrossing and enlightening? My bet is none. Five-year-olds can be cute in small doses and of course we love them and want the best for them, but let’s be truthful, they really aren’t very insightful or interesting for long periods of time, and neither is Jack.
And then, after the totally implausible “escape” from “Room,” Donoghue fails to explore, with deep insight, the ramifications of reentering a world from which one’s been absent for seven years, or in Jack’s case, a world he’s never known. I felt Donoghue glossed over this difficult transition. I felt the second half of the book lacked depth just as the first half did, though in a different way. What does “Ma” feel now that she’s free? Is she going to reunite with her own parents? (Her mother refused to accept “Ma’s” seeming death, while her father needed to do so and even held a funeral for her.) Is she going to introduce them to their grandson and him to them? Being held in captivity for years, then introduced/reintroduced to the outside world is going to be traumatic for anyone, but for some mysterious reason, Donoghue doesn’t want to explore the rich store of human emotions she could have mined. There was a curious disconnect between the intense trauma “Ma” and Jack would have had to suffer and the blitheness with which Donoghue relates their story.
And what of the unnatural bond, truly reminiscent of that in “Psycho,” formed between Jack and “Ma” while in “Room?” Yes, I realize that two people imprisoned together for years are going to form a deep bond, but once those people are freed, especially if they are a twenty-six year old mother and her five-year-old son, then some separation and setting of boundaries is going to be necessary in order to promote mental and emotional health. But Donoghue never explores this facet of “Ma’s” and Jack’s captivity, though clearly, she realized it exists. At one point, Jack says of himself, “Maybe I’m a human, but I’m a me-and-Ma as well.” That outlook might have served him well in “Room” but it’s a dangerous one to cultivate in “Outside.”
Donoghue took a real risk with Room and I applaud her for her courage. I think this is going to be a very polarizing book – people will probably either love it or hate it. They will feel it worked wonderfully or they will feel it didn’t work at all. Obviously, for me, it didn’t work at all. I thought the premise was wonderful, but I felt Donoghue failed to deliver. I honestly can’t understand how this book even made the Booker longlist, let alone the shortlist. I expect more depth and insight from a Booker nominated work. Do I think Donoghue was a lazy storyteller with Room? I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I do think she capitalized on gimmicks and topicality, and I was very disappointed. In the end, the whole thing felt like a cheap trick to me, and after reading it, I felt like I had to go take a long, hot shower.