by Emma Donoghue
Long before it was longlisted for the Booker a proof of Room was shoved enthusiastically into my hand by a bookseller. He wasn't the only one excited about it. There has long been a buzz about this novel since Picador paid £200,000 for it last year and it was actually 'called in' by the Booker judges this year rather than being submitted, a fact that led one bookmaker to install it as an early favourite. In the run up to publication I have read ecstatic reviews here, there and everywhere all of which was discouraging me rather than encouraging me to take a look, especially after a quick glance at the opening page as I left the bookshop had me immediately worried. A child narrator, significant words capitalised, and the knowledge that it had been inspired by the Fritzl case all had me running to safety until I decided that I should just swallow any prejudices and give the book a chance. I tried really hard not to be irritated by the narrative voice, and to be as open as possible to how the book's perspective could enlighten the situation but in the end I couldn't get on with the conceit, found myself constantly reminded by the book's approach of its sentimentality and, I'm afraid, lack of insight. I felt very much like a lone voice of dissent, much as when I read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, until I noticed a few others who weren't warming to it so much on the Booker Forum and on Twitter too. But part of the reason for my feelings about it aren't so much to do with the book in isolation but in comparison to another book I read recently. I'll review that book (Beside The Sea by Veronique Olmi) soon but I basically felt that although it has a completely different story it managed to land far more effectively some of the things I think Donoghue was trying to manage with this book, and without any tricks, ticks or five-year-old narrators.
So, the book begins on Jack's fifth birthday and we very quickly realise (as 'Ma leans out of Bed to switch on Lamp') that Jack has a unique view of the world. Confined to a twelve-foot-square room with his mother since birth she has decided to shield him from the trauma by pretending that everything he sees on TV is fake and that the only real things are the simple pieces of furniture and accessories, the four walls, ceiling and Skylight of the room they share. They aren't completely isolated of course and we learn of their captor as we might of a fairytale baddie.
Nothing makes Ma scared. Except Old Nick maybe. Mostly she calls him just him, I didn't even know the name for him till I saw a cartoon about a guy that comes in the night called Old Nick. I call our one that because he comes in the night, but he doesn't look like the TV guy with a beard and horns and stuff. I asked Ma once is he old, and she said nearly twice her which is pretty old.
The extent of the abuse is made more explicit later as Jack keeps quiet in Wardrobe, the place where he sleeps each night so that he has no contact with Old Nick.
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.
It's difficult to say much about this novel without spoilers (so don't read on if you want to come to the book afresh - you've probably gathered by now that I wasn't that keen) but from the very beginning we get the impression that Jack's fifth birthday is something of a landmark in maturation and that his mother is keen to open his view of the world, tell him more about their situation, all with an eye towards action. As the title of this review suggests it isn't simply a tale of captivity, in fact you could say that the real plot only gets going after Jack moves beyond Room and it is his reaction to the world outside that threatened to make the book interesting at one point. I'm prepared to accept that Jack's view of Room is probably far harder to write than it seems but it doesn't really alter the fact that the early sections are all set-up and, if you aren't getting on with the voice, incredibly irritating. There is excitement in the middle and then the promise of genuine interest later but Jack's limited understanding and capacity for understanding only lead to the same repeated observations about the world. Adults tend to say things that they don't mean literally. Adults lie. People fear what they don't understand. None of which feels very insightful. Other reviewers have spoken of how affecting the book is but it took me a while to get over the sensationalism of the set-up, which is affecting in the same way that a tabloid headline can be upsetting. There are moments that worked for me later on but its amazing how unaffected I was after all the tricks and hoops I had been forced to jump through, and the fact is that there were long sections when the book was actually rather boring.
Don't get me wrong, this book will be a huge hit. The age of the misery memoir was supposed to have passed with the recession but this has just the right combination of misery and sentimentality to send it to the top of the bestseller list. Picking up on a cautiously made comment by a namesake on the Booker Forum I also wonder whether the closeness of the bond between Ma and Jack, something certainly unique to mother and child, might make the book hit home more emotionally with female readers. I will second the worry that a comment like that might be not only absurd but also sexist, but the vast majority of positive reviews I've come across have been from female readers and the few voices of dissent male. I don't know what that means, if anything, but I'll point you forwards to my review of Beside The Sea; a book about a mother, her children and the cruel world; a book that I found engrossing, beautiful and devastating. Watch this space...