Emma Dongoghue’s “Room”

“Today I’m five.  I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra.”

What I didn’t know before reading ROOM:

That I, the slowest reader I know, could finish off a 321-page book in less than a day. That I could stay up all night reading without remotely feeling the necessity of sleep. That I could reach page 135 and not realize how much I was shaking, then reach page 140 and feel my heart pounding. That I could end a chapter standing straight up with the book held tight in my hands and not realize how I got there.

I now know a little something more of what people mean when they say a book is “gripping,” “arresting.” When someone tells you that they read a book “they couldn’t put down,” what they often fail to convey is how much consequence seems to come with not holding onto it – how every block of time you spend not reading it is a moment our characters lie trapped in some purgatory, or worse. In the case of ROOM, we’re leaving them in a prison, one it doesn’t do well to imagine too clearly.

There’s little I can say about this national best-selling novel that hasn’t already been said; the recent paperback release has about ten pages of blurbs proving as much. The story of a child and his mother locked in an 11-by-11-foot space for the entirety of the former’s life was bound to attract attention, and the notoriety of the novel is only augmented by the fact that the mother is being imprisoned there (in Room) as a sexual slave. What would have been the worst crime, however, is to do these characters the injustice of writing their story poorly, and as readers we’re lucky this isn’t the case. Donoghue captures the voice of a 5-year-old child with eerie accuracy, and even the phrasings of Jack’s questions (“Why are the eyes of me shut?”) show mastery on the writer’s part. This woman is a mother and shows it on every page. What’s amazing about that is that by the end, her audience shares in these motherly sensibilities: we feel all those protective instincts, too.

Now, as with most books thusly hyped into hyperspace, I have two general thoughts: One, its overall fame and impressive sales figures are completely and totally justified. Two, there are some choices of Donoghue’s that I question once the book reaches its half-way point.

******************SPOILER ALERT. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.*****************************

I admit I was shocked to see that, after Jack’s escape from Room and the police’s discovery of his mother and the arrest of their captor Old Nick, over half the book remained. The reason I was surprised to see this is because even from pages 1-100, we see so much emotional growth in Jack, so much strengthening in the bonds of trust between mother and son, that after the culmination of all these factors into a daring rescue, you wonder what’s left to develop. That is not to say I ascribe solely to the action movie mentality that all stories must end with a bang. It’s just that we have seen this tiny family at its worst, its most helpless, and the arc of rising-action-CLIMAX-falling-action typically strives to favor the rising side more. Though the suicide attempt of Jack’s mother back in the “Outside” world provides a climactic post-Room plot point, in part it felt manufactured merely to produce such an effect. With Donoghue’s cards played by the end of the first two sections of the book, I wasn’t as stirred by Jack’s mother’s overdose as I otherwise would have been.

What follows in the latter half of the book is a series of interesting vignettes, scenes of Jack’s adjustment to the world. But ultimately, we could have inferred that he’d have a lot of learning to do upon leaving his captivity, so isn’t the decision to show all these moments sort of just to satisfy our perverse curiosity? Isn’t this more or less the trade-fiction equivalent to answering all the very real (but unanswered) questions we had after the 2008 Fritzl case so the general public might find some small solace? And isn’t that putting Jack into another sort of captivity entirely?

Maybe it’s unfair to equate real events with the fictitious ones we’re presented with in ROOM. But it’s no more unfair than Donoghue plunking Oprah into her story and taking the easy punch—that is, showing the Oprah-like interviewer to be insensitively manipulative and ratings-obsessed. Or, for that matter, assuming no one on any hospital staff ANYWHERE has EVER managed to say the right thing:

When [Noreen the nurse] smiles her eyes crinkle. “Probably a bit homesick, aren’t you?”
“Homesick?” Ma’s staring at her.
“Sorry, I didn’t—“
“It wasn’t a home, it was a soundproofed cell.”
“That came out wrong, I beg your pardon,” says Noreen. She goes in a hurry.

Was anyone else frustrated by the hundred-plus pages insinuating no licensed professional who tries can be any help at all? Thank goodness for the Grandma and Steppa characters, or I’d think that no one would EVER get it right. (It’s fun, though, to think that young Uncle Paul and Aunt Deana, with a toddler of their own, are less suited to caring for Jack than the retired grandmother and her rebound 2nd husband. Details like this make the post-Room story multidimensional, continually surprising, and all the more real.)

But I could be getting nitpicky here. The overall pacing of the post-Room half of ROOM is what stuck out the most to me; “meandering” is the word that kept coming to mind. It’s fascinating to see the challenges posed to Jack, but I think the pieces of this novel that really stay with you are the moments where this mother-son bond are strongest, in order to survive the most unthinkable circumstances.

“We stand beside Table and look up, there’s the most hugest round silver face of God. So bright, shining all of Room, the faucets and Mirror and the pots and Door and Ma’s cheeks even. ‘You know,’ she whispers, ‘sometimes the moon is a semicircle, and sometimes a crescent, and sometimes just a little curve like a fingernail clipping.’
‘Nah.’ Only in TV.”

Those are the pieces I’ll remember, the ones that anyone ought to remember, and the ones that will secure Donoghue’s spot on the bestseller list where she so clearly belongs.

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