Monday 16 August 2010

'better out than in?'

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...


dovegreyreader 16 August 2010 at 07:50  

Will your review confirms my own disappointment with Room which has also felt like a bit of a disappointment with myself for not being able to give it a fair crack of Whip with Book that I felt sure would be of interest to me. Defeated by those conceits and what I felt was an intensely irritating child's voice I could get nowhere near the emotion that others have found in Room,let alone page 50. It's clearly working for plenty of readers and I feel sure is Contender but was sadly not for me. I may grit Teeth and try once more if it makes Cut.

William Rycroft 16 August 2010 at 08:29  

It's a real Marmite book this one, readers seem to either love it or hate it. In that way in reminded me of Life of Pi, and it could well enjoy similar success, but in what seems to be shaping up as a slightly disappointing Booker selection I'd be very disappointed if this one triumphed.

Nice capitalisation by the way!

Unknown 16 August 2010 at 10:22  

I think that comparing it to Beside the Sea is interesting. Beside the Sea was a very powerful book that had me in tears, but I don't think they deal with the same issues. I think Beside the Sea deals with things from the mother's perspective - how hard it is for a single mum to cope with two children.

Room deals with things from a child's perspective - what a child needs to be happy. I haven't read a book that deals with these issues so well before and I did think there were a lot of insightful observations to do with media intrusion and raising children. It made me think that my boys could do with more time in a single room, enjoying the company of family. Perhaps I'm soft because I have a son who is nearly 5, but I thought Jack's voice was reasonably accurate. I do think you're right about this book resonating with female readers more than male ones, but I don't think that will be exclusively the case.

dovegreyreader 16 August 2010 at 10:31  

An interesting article here Will
http://www.independent.ie/national-news/irish-novelist-accused-of-cashing-in-on-fritzl-horror-2297965.html and it chimes with the discomfort that I have felt with this book, something felt intrinsically wrong from the first page. Perhaps I was being forced into a voyeurism I didn't want to participate in. I guess it throws up all the arguments about drawing from current real-life events for fiction, and is there an honourable time-lapse that should be respected.

Unknown 16 August 2010 at 11:46  

I don't feel that Room is cashing in on the Fritzl case. It could easily have been a sensationalised account of their lives, but although this book was inspired by the Fritzl case I think it has taken it in a tasteful direction. It isn't really about their imprisonment, more about the relationship between a son and his mother.

William Rycroft 16 August 2010 at 11:49  

Thanks for the comment Jackie, I was hoping you might pop by. My review of Beside The Sea will be up on Thursday and hopefully make my reasons for comparing the two books clearer but the gist of it is that regardless of the perspective each story is told from they're both about a mother's need to protect her child from the outside world and the very real cruelty of that world. I agree that there aren't many books that take Donoghue's approach and there were moments that touched home like the simple joy of household tasks turned into games; these brilliantly counterpointed by the 'game' of Screaming that they play (unbeknownst to Jack) in order to alert outsiders to their imprisonment. But those moments were few and far between for me with most observations obvious or too cute by far. I have a couple of boys myself, although a bit younger, and it's because of them that I haven't dared re-read The Road yet, a book that affected me greatly before I became a father and might just finish me off now!

Interesting article Lynne. When I said I hadn't liked the book to a friend recently they wondered why: 'Too soon?' they asked, and it was the first time that it had occurred to me that that might be the case. The book really is an amalgam of various cases, the initial abduction closer to the Kampusch case and she went on to be interviewed very soon after her escape and even became a chat-show host, all of which alters how quickly people should start accusing others of cashing in or exploiting. Donoghue seems to have done a lot of research and written this book with good intentions but it's fair to say that some will be repelled by the very idea of it.

William Rycroft 16 August 2010 at 11:53  

Oooh, whilst I was writing that last comment you snuck in with another Jackie! I agree with you that the book isn't written sensationally (it could have been really badly done in that direction) although the premise of it is.

Unknown 16 August 2010 at 12:12  

Interesting. I hadn't thought about that link before. I look forward to reading your review on Thursday.

Simon (Savidge Reads) 16 August 2010 at 16:48  

What a brilliant review William. I really liked this book and know you didnt love it, I really liked how you explained what you found the flaws and could see some of them in the book myself. I think I needed to read Room when I did and timing is a big part with books and the timing and everything was alligned when I read it I think.

William Rycroft 16 August 2010 at 18:50  

Thank you Simon, I really appreciate your comment. As you say, it's possible to read reviews that chime differently to your own but are clearly from the same book (if that makes any sense). Perhaps unsurpisingly with such a book there is going to be a very personal reaction from each reader.

kimbofo 16 August 2010 at 21:18  

I mentioned on John Self's review that I thought this might be a book that chimed with female readers more than male, but am inclined to think it may be more a case of you either engage with it emotionally or you don't. As you know, I loved it (thanks for the link), but can understand why some people have found fault with it.

I have also read Beside the Sea, but as Jackie points out I don't think they are comparable really. And I don't subscribe to the view that this is cashing in on the Fritzl case; many people will read this book and not even be aware of the connection. It seems to me to be a bit of a marketing "hook" but when you read the book it's a fairly sanitised version of what happened, don't you think? I mean, there's sex (or rape?) in it, but it's not really described in any great detail and is by no means voyeuristic.

And is it really a misery memoir? I found it quite uplifting really? It's about a little boy's journey into a new world he did not know about - it's scary and terrifying in places, but it's not a miserable experience.

Sorry for such a long comment. ;-)

William Rycroft 17 August 2010 at 00:53  

Please don't apologise for a lengthy comment Kim, it's great to have the discussion. I did try to allow this book in, to connect with it emotionally as you say, but it didn't happen and I'll take my share of the blame as long as the author takes a bit too (for putting so much in the way of my connecting with it). As for Beside The Sea, come back on Thursday and we can discuss.

I can imagine Donoghue being inspired by the Fritzl case and coming up with the idea of telling it from the child's point of view, allowing her to keep a distance between reader and the reality and therefore bypass the accusation of sensationalism or exploitation. It is sensitively handled, it isn't written with lurid detail - in fact the whole setup of the book is designed to avoid any adult detail. But by choosing to write a book like this (and publishing it a few weeks before the autobiography of Natasha Kampusch arrives), it's going to be hard to avoid an accusation of choosing a sensational topic.

I didn't mean to suggest that it was a misery memoir but rather that it traded in similar currency. It's grim, it's hopeful, it's grim again, it's hopeful! Based on real events, it's designed to tug on the emotions and provide a moment of lift by the end.

How much more dangerous it would be to write a book without such comfort...

...as I said, see you on Thursday.

leyla sanai 19 August 2010 at 10:46  

I enjoyed reading your articulate review, Will, even though as you'll know from the Booker site and my blog the book resonated with me and I found it harrowing and powerful. You might have a point about females having more empathy with Jack's voice. From my experience with small children I felt his voice rang true most of the time, hitting false note only when he used inappropriately complex words on rare occasions.
I found Room a moving account of the relationship between a mother and child in very unusual adverse conditions. I thought Donoghue minimised any sensationalism by limiting the time Ma and Jack were imprisoned in Room, and I felt she had carried out meticulous research into the post-traumatic effects of incarceration and chronic sexual abuse. I found Room an extremely disturbing but worthwhile read. But your review is a very well-written account of the counter-view.

Clare S 17 December 2010 at 19:26  

Well, I'm a female reader and it certainly didn't chime with me. Given the subject of the book I expected to be affected and wasn't. The central conceit hung in a knowing way over everything. There were words and thoughts a five year old boy wouldn't have had. There was sentimentality, cutesy etc that was totally out of kilter with its subject matter.
It reminded me in intent of Craig Raine's Postcard from a Martian in its attempt to look at our world through fresh eyes but I don't think it succeeded - not for me anyway.

William Rycroft 19 December 2010 at 09:14  

Thanks for commenting, Clare. The end of year lists that are popping up all over the place are filled with lots of people recommending Room and remind me what people liked so much about it. It isn't so much that those aspects of the book aren't there, they just aren't there for me. The idea of how a book 'chimes' with a reader is a good one I think, especially with this one which people seem to be either really affected or rather annoyed by.

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