Emma Donoghue – “Room”

Room“The American writer has his hands full, trying to understand and then describe and then make credible much of the American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.”

That’s David Shields, from “Reality Hunger.”

I read “Room,” by Emma Donoghue, after the three “disappeared” girls/young women were found on Lorain Ave. in Cleveland. A friend recommended the novel based on that incident and “Room” is a powerful and creative attempt to imagine the horror of such an imprisoned woman and to observe her behavior through the eyes of her born-in-captivity, five-year-old son.

I wonder if Donoghue wouldn’t agree with Shields—that the reality of Cleveland “stupefies” and “sickens” in comparison with what she dreamed up in “Room,” which is plenty bleak on its own.

And also, oddly enough, “Room” is at times full of joy. Innocent, wide-eyed wonder and joy. We observe most of this story from the perspective of Jack, the five-year-old.  His observations show a keen, sprightly mind at work—though that mind only knows the small space he’s inhabited all his life. So we feel his youth and eager spirit.  Jack’s ability to find pleasure in so little, his ability to engage his imagination in such a vivid manner, and his growing awareness, as the book progresses, that there is something more out there, makes for a memorable first section of the book.

Without giving anything away, I found the second half of this novel to be flat-line and a bit repetitive. Because of the thriller-suspense arc embedded in my reading genes, I assumed that the tension created in the first half of the book would redouble itself and ramp up to a new level. No. The second half of the book plays like more like a straight novel about re-birth and awakening.  This felt like an odd mash-up.

The novel form is meant to be toyed with (nothing I dislike more than pure formula) and I admire Donoghue’s willingness to play with the rules, but I found less and less reason to keep reading as the pages turned. Jack’s vocabulary is spotty.  He seems not to have been taught one expression so he takes everything at face-value and the constant explanations grew wearisome.

But it’s hard not to read “Room” and ponder how reality often trumps fiction.  Donoghue seems to understand this. The best part of the book is when she lets us observe Jack’s mother wrestling with the story she has concocted to keep Jack content with their confinement.

“Are stories true?” Jack asks about the books his mother reads to him.  She replies: “Stories are a different kind of true.”

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2 responses to “Emma Donoghue – “Room”

  1. But don’t you think that every experience is different? Why should the Cleveland girls’ horror be exactly like the one in Germany several years ago? Why shouldn’t Emma Donahue explore what she wishes–how to raise a loved child in impossible circumstances–w/o worrying that it’s “not how the case of X was”? What I loved in “Room” was the point of view, the child’s viewpoint, while at the same time, she allowed readers to know what the real situation was. That must have been an enormous challenge for a writer, and I think she carried it off superbly.

  2. Good point, Susan. Every experience is different, no question. As a novel structure goes, I just wish the second half of this book held one-third of the rich tension that was build in the first half.

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