Friday, September 24, 2010


The moment I read the first NY Times review of the new novel Room by Emma Donaghue, I hopped on my bike and rode off to the library. It was so new it wasn't even there yet but two days later I had it in hand. I'm not usually much of a new book reader, but this one sounded...different.

And it was. It is narrated entirely through the POV of a five-year-old boy, in first person present tense. I felt I thoroughly knew this boy, and I vividly understood his mother and his environment through him.It was quite amazing and had the mark of a truly fine book -- I've been thinking about it ever since. The characters and places have stayed with me. So many books and movies disappoint in this -- they might be great as page-turners or exciting in their use of cliff-hangers and drama -- and don't get me wrong, I admire and envy them for that--but they're gone the moment you close the book or leave the theater or turn off the TV.

Here's what was most compelling about Room's story for me: in spite of being told by a small child, it was never once darling or precious in its telling. It would have been so easy to go there. And believe me, my radar was up. I keep looking back at it (even though I should really get it back to the library asap for the next person) to try to figure out how this was accomplished. The boy's speech patterns are childlike, and he is darling, but that's besides the point. He is doing his best to interpret his world. We see him turn five and start to ask questions. He is held captive with his mother in an 11x11 room with no way out, and not even a window. He has never been outside or seen another person. From his perspective this isn't a problem--it's all he knows--but he has new questions about things now. Questions that lead his mother to start planning a "Great  Escape." There's a lot of dialogue, and thoughts morphing into dialogue, and Donaghue never loses that train of thought. It is completely logical given the context.

There are some beautiful moments:

When they finally get "Outside," and the doctors are evaluating all the interventions and therapies this bright, precocious but sheltered (in the strangest sense of the word) boy will need, his mother says, "I thought he was okay...."

When the mother finally consents to an TV interview, and the interviewer callously asks her one sensational question after another (including asking if she sometimes misses the simplicity of her old life being locked in a shed), she turns to her lawyer and says, "Is she allowed to ask me such stupid questions?"

It's amazing how the world they escape to is so flawed. It's a world we recognize. Everyone's there, but distracted by their own lives. Sure, they are happy to see Ma and Jack, but they still have to stop at the mall for party gifts, book club members still show up at the door, parents still have their own biases and there are a lot of stupid assumptions. There's also a lot of effort and love. It's a familiar place to us -- full of imperfect beauty, good intentions and best efforts, all kinds of people, cracks, flaws and hope. Jack notes there are a lot of amazing things in the world, but coming from a tiny world where there is only one of every necessity, there's also a lot of "repeats." He forgets that if something is in a new place it won't be in the old place anymore. He doesn't understand how a book he had back in Room could have gotten somewhere into a store and assumes it is his. There's a lot to get used to. There's a lot for us to recognize -- of how much we have, how much we take for granted, how much we don't see or recognize.

Anyway, enough spoilers.

Many books when you get toward the end, you can feel yourself being eased out of the story -- airlifted, or pushed toward the door, or a tiny voice saying, okay now we're going to tie things up! Sometimes endings are abrupt and unsatisfying. Sometimes they are beautiful but not fully earned. Sometimes you realize the author has nothing important to say at the end but has to stumble towards one anyway. Room ends in the most perfect, fully earned, and resonant way.  A way that balances the arc of the book, is utterly faithful to its characters, and best of all, exhibits their growth right up to the very last moment. This is a complete rarity and wonderful gift.

Well done, Emma Donaghue. My sincerest thanks and appreciation. Everyone else, read this book!