Little, Brown and Company: New York, NY, 2010. 336 pages. $24.99
There is a risk in telling a story from the point of view of a five-year-old: such a limited narrative perspective can limit a novel’s scope, and its ability to resonate beyond those limitations. Narration in a child’s voice risks feeling gimmicky. And yet in Emma Donoghue’s Room, a novel shortlisted for the Booker prize, the constraint of the voice enables the novel to explore big territory.
The narrator of Room is Jack, who has spent his entire five years in one room with his mother (he calls her Ma). He’s never seen the world outside, but thanks to Ma’s imaginative nurturing, he doesn’t know what he’s missing. He names all the objects in his small domain—“Room”, “Plant”, “Rug”—and in personifying these things, he manages to populate his world. Most of Jack’s toys are the product of his mother’s ingenuity: “Labyrinth” is a maze of tunnels made of toilet paper rolls; “Fort” is constructed from empty cans and vitamin bottles. For Phys Ed, Ma and Jack stack furniture and run timed laps around their 12 X 12 foot space.
Jack accepts their narrow existence, unaware that Ma was abducted seven years earlier, his father the kidnapper who still rapes Ma almost every night. “Old Nick” is an abstract threat, the man who drops off the food and supplies, and makes Ma’s bedsprings creak at night. As Jack says:
Men aren’t real except Old Nick, and I’m not really sure if he’s real for real. Maybe half? He brings groceries and Sundaytreat and disappears the trash, but he’s not human like us. He only happens in the night, like bats. Maybe Door makes him up with a beep beep and the air changes. I think Ma doesn’t like to talk about him in case he gets realer.
Room is inspired by a very real kidnapper: Josef Fritzel, the Austrian who kept his daughter locked in a basement for twenty-four years and fathered her seven children. By telling her story from Jack’s point of view, however, Donoghue manages to subvert preconceived notions about the case. The child’s perspective defamiliarizes a familiar event, and in Donoghue’s hands, Room is not a fictionalized account of the Fritzel tragedy; it is a much bigger story.
Reality is perception, and this tension between what is and isn’t real courses throughout the book. There is a TV in Room, so Jack has seen Dora the Explorer, SpongeBob Squarepants and plenty of programs about wildlife. But he thinks everything on TV is fake. “Reality” exists only inside Room, and Jack’s desperate for more of it. Of a mouse he spots under the stove, he says, “An alive thing, an animal, for really real not TV.” Jack is devastated when his mother drives the mouse away and stops up the hole through which he slipped in. He pleads: “He was real, I saw him.”
Ma tells Jack that too much TV will rot his brain. But she uses television to teach him vocabulary. In a game called “Parrot,” she has Jack repeat the words he hears on the news:
I listen extra hard, she’s talking to a man with one leg, I think he lost the other in a war.
“Parrot,” shouts Ma and she mutes them with the button.
“Most poignant aspect, I think for all our viewers that’s what’s most deeply moving about what you endured—“ I run out of words.
“Good pronunciation,” says Ma. “Poignant means sad.”
The quote Jack parrots could easily come from the sort of interview Josef Fritzel’s daughter faced after her release. In typical news coverage, a harrowing story is reduced to sound bites, tied up with neat words like “endured.” As Jack parrots the news, breaking current events into vocabulary building blocks, Donaghue reveals the nuance such news stories miss. Fiction can shed more light on an event than a “poignant” interview with a victim.
Room is structured around the gradual intrusion of reality into Jack’s life. Donoghue manages to reveal Ma’s situation while fully committing to Jack’s perspective. The truth dawns on the reader as it does on the boy: slowly and with great disorientation, achieved through the syntax in Jack’s voice. Dropping articles, Donoghue gives his voice a clipped quality. His language is held hostage by his limited vocabulary. His sentences betray a danger he doesn’t understand. There is a jaunty, enthusiastic rhythm to his sentences that subverts the ugly horror of the situation. Of the sky he glimpses through the ceiling, Jack says, “Skylight’s different today. She’s got a black bit like an eye.” The more Jack learns the more desperate Ma is to escape. But what Ma sees as a prison, Jack sees as home.
When they are finally free, the outside world proves terrifying to Jack. He misses Room. “I’ve seen the world and I’m tired now,” he says. The reader misses the room as well. The most powerful parts of the novel are set in that confined space, where Donoghue allows her reader to feel the emotional density of the relationship between Jack and his mother. The world inside Room is less familiar to readers than the rest of the book and yet it feels more real. It’s the part of the story that the news couldn’t give us. It’s the kind of place that fiction has the power to conjure.