A year of reading women

365 days of women's lit

Emma Donoghue: Room

with 2 comments

Part of the Fritzl media circus

This was a book that kept jumping out at me. From a colleague’s desk, in conversations with friends, on posters, on the tube. I’d actually been running away from it for a good couple of months when it finally snared me on my maiden trawl through the Kindle’s bestseller chart.

The reason I’d been running away was my hatred of misery memoirs. I can’t stand them. They are the sweet chilli chicken dippers of the book world: all processed flavours and cheap flesh, with next-to-no substance to them.

So a novel inspired by the ordeal of Elisabeth Fritzl, the Austrian woman imprisoned for 24 years and repeatedly impregnated by her father, was not calculated to have me champing at the bit. It was probably only a combination of a glass of wine and a nagging doubt of my ability to navigate myself to a book I actually wanted to read on the Kindle (it takes me a while to work these things out – I still file paper tax returns) that clinched it.

And I have to say I’m glad. Because, instead of the lurid, titillating sensationalism-fest I’d been fearing, I found a skillful exploration of childhood and personhood and what it means to live in the world.

Donoghue has played down the Fritzl link in interviews about the book, but she’s on a bit of a hiding to nothing with this. In the plot alone, it’s there for all to see.

Like Elisabeth, Ma and Jack have been kept in a specially constructed, sound-proofed dungeon since before Jack was born. Cut off from reality, they must make a game out of a nightmare, relying on their own resourcefulness, the people ‘in TV’ and the food and ‘Sunday treats’ brought by their captor Old Nick (when he remembers) to stay alive and sane.

So far, so Fritzl (except that, as far as we can tell, Old Nick is no relation), but as Jack, the book’s narrator, turns five, his long-suffering Ma, who was abducted when she was just 19, reaches breaking point. Conscious of her son’s need for more than their 11 by 11 metre cell can offer and the fact that Old Nick is running out of money to provide for them, she devises a strategy to get them out once and for all, a strategy that relies on Jack’s ability to play dead.

Alright, so the escape for Elisabeth was a lot longer coming, and came out of one of her children’s genuine illnesses, but the bare bones are pretty identical. Where the two stories differ, however (and the thing that probably makes Donoghue squeamish about the comparison), is that while Elisabeth’s was told in the glare of the world’s media with every salacious detail and horrifying aspect picked over and commented upon, Jack and Ma’s is told carefully, thoughtfully, from the inside.

Sensational though the subject matter is, Donoghue refuses to sacrifice truth and insight for cheap thrills. In fact, she chooses to sidestep the greatest opportunity for stake-raising altogether, having Jack leap out of Old Nick’s truck only a few streets away from his home, so that it is easy for the police to trace the whereabouts of Room and Ma.

A writer with different priorities would have prolonged this section, getting Jack more thoroughly lost and leaving Ma to the mercy of her duped captor to capitalise on the tension. But Donoghue isn’t interested in this. What she is interested in, as becomes apparent as the second half of the book unfolds, is the rare opportunity that the situation provides to parachute a fully formed human alien into the world and observe it from the outside.

Never having been exposed to the ‘real’ world, Jack is able to look at it afresh and highlight the strangeness of the things we take for granted, from stairs to shopping malls. Occasionally, this takes on a grating, Kids-say-the-funniest-things quality, but for the most part it’s very well handled.

So much so that, before I’d even fully reconciled myself to what I was reading, I was clicking on to the last page.

Picture by weegeebored


Written by Ann Morgan

May 2, 2011 at 1:48 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Thanks for this, it echoed many of my own thoughts about the book. It was an incredibly brave story to write, especially writing in the voice of a five-year-old boy, and it could have gone so wrong, yet somehow, she got it so right. For me, the most powerful thing was the way she alluded to the most lurid of the horrors, rather than confronting us with them. I was also struck by the way she showed that for Jack, this was the only reality he had ever known, and so it was completely normal. What could have been an awful “Misery” book was really sensitively handled, I thought.

    Rosie Fiore-Burt

    May 2, 2011 at 1:59 pm

  2. I had many of the same reservations, and I think I slightly hated myself for giving in and picking the book up in the first place. But I quite agree: it was an impressive and overall a satisfying read. She imbues tiniest details with real charm, giving a sense of unostentatious realism to a story which really should, of course, be preposterous. And spot on about the restraint: the ‘escape scene’ was very skillfully done and had me entirely gripped – but went on not a paragraph longer than it had to.

    Andrew O'Sullivan

    May 2, 2011 at 4:53 pm

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