The last review of 2010. I hope you'll enjoy it. (A year-in-review post is coming in a few hours, as well.)
First published in: 2010
This edition: Little, Brown 2010
Genre: fiction, drama
Cover design by Katie Tooke, cover photo by Cassia Beck
One of the absolutely most buzzed about books of 2010 is Emma Donoghue's riveting novel, Room. It seemed to me like a book I couldn't miss reading: I wanted to know why everyone was talking about this. This book, I knew without having read it, would be unique, one I would want in my bookcase.
I hadn't even opened the book yet, and I was already intrigued: the one-worded title in itself already had me asking questions. Room. Room. Room. What Room? What's in it? The answer to these questions are shocking, but recognizable to those familiar with the Joseph Fritzl case in Austria.
Room is just what it sounds like. A room, though 5 year-old Jack prefers to call it by its name, Room. Room contains several things, such as Bed and Floor with cork tiles. There's also Rug, on which Jack was born. One Skylight.
Jack sleeps in Wardrobe and loves to watch TV and its make-belief stories. Trees and Dora the Explorer are TV.
Jack lives in Room, with Mother. Sometimes Old Nick visits; he comes in through Door with Keypad. Jack has never been anywhere but in Room. There's nothing else for him. Room is all he knows. Mother, she hasn't been Outside in years.
Mother and Jack are locked up, held captive by a man who had kidnapped Jack's mom when she was only 19 years old. The reader isn't – upon starting this novel without any prior information – immediately aware of this.
The first section of the book describes daily life in Room, as seen and experienced by Jack. Being in Room "with" Jack and Mother in this sense does bring about a feeling of discomfort to the reader – one almost feels just as confined as the boy and his mother. I admit I felt somewhat claustrophobic reading about cork tiles, Wardrobe and Remote.
But Room becomes a character in its own right, and despite the fact that is a prison, Room is in a way cherished because it is Jack's home.
Moments of treacherous joy the child experiences bring about a smile here and there, quickly followed by the sad knowledge – what Jack knows not – that there's more beyond Room, an Outside taken from him and Mother. Jack doesn't know any better, but Mother has suffered and continues to do so. This constant awareness in the face of happy and blissfully unaware narration by little Jack is why ROOM is so compelling.
Jack's love for Mother and their mutual support and regard towards one and other is another reason why ROOM is so recommendable and moving. Donoghue chooses to highlight their love in most unusual circumstances by having her characters use unconventional methods of showing love and care: Mother – fiercely protective of her son – continues to breastfeed Jack while Jack finds comfort in holding Mother's dead tooth safe, in his mouth.
Donoghue's choices might put off some readers as it's not quite acceptable behavior in this society. I recently saw the movie Grown-Ups, in which Maria Bello's character still breast-feeds her 4 year-old son because she "just can't say no". It was too much.
In ROOM however, breastfeeding only strengthened and emphasized the fact that Jack and Mother don't live as we do. Jack and Mother haven't been part of society in years. ROOM isn't an Adam Sandler movie. There's a definite alienation – what we find to be odd or even disgusting to Mother and Jack is a way to hold on. They've had to set their own rules to get by. To them, it's a way to stay fed and protected. Jack and Mother are not of this world, not really. They are of Room.
It is the psychology, then, which draws me into a book such as ROOM. ROOM is not an action-packed book – it's not even a thriller. It's something one has to try and appreciate: What made ROOM work for me was those everyday descriptions, because they were odd and interesting due to the circumstances. If action is expected, if drama to the max is wanted, if you want sensationalized angst – you won't find much of it in ROOM.
ROOM is mostly very subdued, because its subject is cruel enough as it is. The atmosphere is awkward and eerie most of the time. Take the Fritzl or Kampusch cases – what a media frenzy. People all over the world just dove right in to get any information, a taste of the drama.
The vultures, descending on their prey, eager for a bite. It's rather disgusting – and I appreciate that Donoghue kept respecting her characters and refrained from turning ROOM into a fest of Hallmark channel moments and cheap thrills.
The action that was present in ROOM – there was some, and it was enough – left me on the edge of my chair. My hands were gripping the cover, I gnawed my lower lip repeatedly. I noticed my blood pressure actually flared up a little bit and my muscles were tense – such a strong physiological reaction speaks for a book, which in that moment I didn't put the down again until all was quiet once more. It's the built-up intense connection the reader develops with Jack and Mother that brings about a kind of tense fear when danger comes about. I was rooting for these people. I wanted to keep them safe. (But I couldn't.)
It's pretty haunting subject material, hard to swallow at times. Emma Donoghue brilliantly emphasizes the harrowing feelings evoked by the story, by letting Jack, five years old, narrate it. Using a five year-old's vocabulary, grammar and syntax, ROOM is somewhat hard to grasp at first, but its effect is sheer perfection. A child's innocence is set against an act of unspeakable cruelty; this dichotomy is what makes Room shine in darkness, what makes it memorable, what makes me want to read it again and again, what makes it – deservedly – one of the most talked about novels of recent years, what makes me tell you to not let this one sit there in that bookstore, or your bookcase.