Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Emma Donoghue, Room (2010)


James Wood started his recent LRB review of Donoghue's new novel with the bald assertion: 'it is based on the Josef Fritzl case'.
It is narrated by Jack, a five-year-old American, whose mother was abducted at the age of 19 and imprisoned in a single room measuring 121 square feet. She is now 26. The boy's mother is regularly visited by her abductor, though only at night: Jack, the rapist's child, was born in this room, and has known no other life. The nameless abductor, whom Jack calls 'Old Nick', provides food clothes, toys, electricity and air conditioning. Room follows the outlines of the Austrian case quite closely ...
Follows the Fritzl case closely. Apart, that is, from being set in a different country. And the fact that Jack's mother is not Old Nick's daughter, that there are no other children (a stillborn baby aside), that they live in a converted shed not a basement room -- actually, apart from pretty much all the salient facts. But Wood wants to press this point in order to set up his knock-down conclusion, that the book is too cheery. That measuring it against the terrible moral yardstick of the Fritzl case reveals the book to be pasteboard:
Does anyone really imagine that Jack's inner life, with his cracks about Pizza Houses and horse stables and high-fives is anything like five-year-old Felix Fritzl's? The real victim's imaginings and anxieties must have been abysmal.
Of course true, appallingly so, this last sentence. But irrelevant, because Donoghue's novel is not about Felix Fritzl, and dragging him in as a stick with which to beat Room is more 'inappropriate' than the 'inappropriate lightness' Wood diagnoses in the novel -- after all he, not Donoghue, is the one who brought in the Fritzl case in the first place! I've a suggestion: let's leave Fritzl out of it for a moment.

Room is a beguiling, surprisingly varied (surprising because Donoghue has set herself so deliberately limited a box of props) and very readable novel; but it is not an attempt to get inside the head of Felix Fritzl. It is, on the contrary, an attempt to fictionalise the mental life of a normal child. That it uses the trope of lifelong imprisonment to do so is a bravura touch, but a fitting one too: because the life of the 5-year old takes place within small horizons. Donoghue captures that brilliantly.

To read it, of course, we have to accept one slightly awkward literary convention: Jack's eloquence. Donoghue points her narrator's five-year-old-ishness in various stylistic touches and neat primitivisms, but it's possible that the reader's ability to suspend disbelief will have its bumpers dented by a narrator who calls hours 'bits of day' and the Sun 'God's yellow face', yet who at other points accurately transcribes phrases like 'it's a polycarbonate mesh, unbreakable', or 'sometimes the moon is a semicircle, and sometimes a crescent', and 'Filipina Shemails' [86, 114, 309]. Five year olds don't speak, not even to report adult speech, so precisely. Sometimes the two registers collide:
My fingers are scuba divers. The soap falls in the water and I play it's a shark. Grandma comes in with a stripey thing on like underwear. [320]
...which invites us to believe that a lifetime watching telly has given Jack the words 'scuba diver' but not the words 'bathing costume'. Nevertheless, and in general, this is fine. It's a convention, and we take it as such; like the fact that Bertie Wooster is both one of England's biggest dim-duffers and somehow, miraculously, a man able to turn a phrase like Oscar Wilde's sharper, cleverer brother.

In general the tone of this novel is supremely well-handled: a warm, likeable, touching voice. What it understands about kids is the way their apprehension of space and personal relations is almost entirely uninterested in concepts of 'freedom', and much more interested in concepts of 'safety', that mutable quality. And, of course, in motherlove. The whole novel, indeed, has the feel of a fable, a beguiling innocency and potency that, for the first half at least, is completely compelling.

But the first part ends with a too-literal halfness at p.159 (the whole is 320 pages long). In the second portion Jack and his Mum are freed, and have to cope with life outdoors. This is much weaker, and unnecessarily extended, as if Donoghue couldn't bear to abandon her charming narratorial invention. The book ends with a visit back to the Room, now swaddled with police tape, in order for Jack to come to his preternaturally wise conclusion about the fall out of Eden, the loss of the womb: 'it's not Room if Door's open' [320]. Which is fair enough. And it's not that the second half completely loses the extraordinary focus and power built up in the first. But the novel is clearly under a compulsion to enact its own moral; and the book shifts from Fable to quasi-Realist narrative, losing its own kind of perfection in a metaphorical partuition and maturity. It's a shame, because the novel's open portion is really very good.

Plus, even with the falling away of part 2, it's a much better novel than Jacobson's The Finkler Question.

4 comments:

Mike Taylor said...

"... like the fact that Bertie Wooster is both one of England's biggest dim-differs and somehow, miraculously, a man able to turn a phrase like Oscar Wilde's smarter, cleverer brother."

Yes. But that absolute genius of Wodehouse is not just that he puts such perfect words into Bertie's mouth, but makes it seems as though they got there by accident -- as though Bertie doesn't quite grasp what he's saying, and repeatedly blunders into perfection by sheer happy chance.

Ah, Wodehouse! There have been plenty of better authors, but has there ever been a better wordsmith? Maybe not. (Though perhaps Douglas Adams pushed him close.)

springer said...

Too right about Woods slamming the novel for not being about what he says it is.

I haven't read it yet, so I'll also take your word for the excessive precocity of the narrative voice, but some of the examples you provide don't ring quite as false for me as they do for you.

My five-year-old's experience of the ocean is almost purely bookish--he talks about scuba divers, but I wouldn't be surprised if the words "swim trunks" didn't trip off his tongue as easily. The line about the moon being sometimes a semicircle and sometimes a crescent might have come out of his mouth just yesterday. He was eating a Babybel cheese, and each bite usually brings the moon into a new phase.

On the other hand, I'll concede "polycarbonate mesh" for now.

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The Chawmonger said...

I'm glad to have stumbled upon your blog, and this is a smart, thoughtful look at ROOM. You make some especially great points about Jack's diction (I hadn't noticed the inconsistency in the scene with the bathing suit, but now that you've mentioned it, it really jumps out). And I totally agree that the second half drags. I wrote about the book on my blog too (at http://chawshop.blogspot.com/2010/10/child-neglect-some-thoughts-on-emma.html), so if you're interested, come check it out!