This post was supposed to come on the back of a blaze of rugby glory. It was supposed to start with this image:
Unfortunately two unpleasant things happened during the week I was scheduled to write my review of Emma Donoghue’s Room.
Firstly, the Irish denied us the grand slam. Swines.
Secondly, my lovely, slightly rough round the edges, unkempt, riddled with cobwebs and old coke cans shed/office was broken into. They nabbed my computer – my bright shiny new thing that I loved. But here’s the lesson. You see the stuff, well it just doesn’t matter that much.
Don’t get me wrong, I love me some stuff. But you can’t be insured for the hours of work you put into building things up. The long, long nights with the foxes howling outside your door, the mad dashes up the garden path to reach the indoor facilities (often just in the nick of time) and the seemingly endless tweaks to new websites, designs and personal work. Photographers, I am now one of the stupid statistics who didn’t always take the time to treat my own scribbles and images with the same care and attention that I did for clients. This was idiotic and I was heartbroken. Sometimes you can take all the precautions you think you need to, but when your computer goes wandering over the garden fence and away into robberland, you realise too late that immediate and consistent backup of all work is a habit you shouldn’t break. Ever.
So it was the loss of time that temporarily unseated me. But cake and an insurance payout are great healers. So I’m writing this from Big Bertha II (a new-new, shiny computer), re-situated in the hotter than hell upstairs, surrounded by the debris of an office that was never really as tidy as it should be, which in turn has made my room a helpless, hopeless homage to the great gods of clutter. It’s a bit of a humph but hey-ho moment – and so more suited to this image of Sophie.
So please forgive the much longer than expected break in book group frivolities. We are back and here are my thoughts on Book 2…
After the year-leaping, decades-spanning romantic romp that was One Day, our book 2 selection moved quite seriously in another direction. Whilst Emma Donoghue has said that the Fritzl case was the spark of inspiration for Room, but it is a trigger rather than a recreation. This isn’t the depressing, voyeuristic story of the captor’s ongoing crime, since he is kept almost entirely behind locked “Door.” Instead we learn so much more about the relationship between a mother and her child, and in this case their hard-fought survival through the trauma of captivity and freedom.
Jack lives with his Ma and they both wake up everyday in the same, small, 12 x 12 ft room. He is held captive there but released in his imagination, tenderly nurtured by the storytelling of Ma. With no windows and only one solitary skylight, he has never been, let alone seen, “Outside” – his only friends are the inanimate objects that populate the room. But his story started before he was born, 2 years before when his mother was abducted from a university campus, held captive and then repeatedly raped. It is this traumatic ordeal that has persisted through the years and continues on a near nightly basis, when Jack is told to hide in the wardrobe and never, ever come out whilst Old Nick is visiting. When he does finally leave and the silence returns to Room, we feel the anguish of their late night vigils stood screaming pointlessly at the soundproofed skylight.
Have you paced out a 12 x 12 ft space? It is frighteningly small. I spend a lot of time in one space, sitting on the same chair, looking at the same screen, with the window behind me and a bare white wall in front. Today I write at the same desk where I gave up revising for my Physics GCSE, intelligently deciding to just wing it instead. The same desk that has travelled up and down the country with me, to Durham where I read books, to London where I wrote plays, and now back to Guildford where I edit the stories of other people lives in the photographs I take. I like this old pine desk. A lot. It is missing a sliding draw, it’s covered in scratches and ink stains and often littered with crumbs, but it does the job well. But a friend it isn’t. So when Jack tours his room, speaking to Rug, Wardrobe, Plant and the damaged-but-loved Meltedy Spoon the pain of his situation is felt most keenly by us, the readers, peering into his shrunken world. There is a feeling of loss, of such tender sadness, that we share with his Ma – because we both know what Jack is missing and the grim dread of what the future might hold.
If the story took a while to settle on your ear, you’re not alone. This book intrigued me from the start, but I had to work for it and I never relaxed reading it. But perhaps that is the point – he lives in a reflected world that we recognise but don’t inhabit. The style of Jack’s narrative voice is strong, at times overbearing. But once I tuned into it, what I realised it gave me was a sense of oppression, working on me without me being fully aware of it – a mimic then of Jack’s daily experience, which is not the most enjoyable thing, but it is definitely interesting. What he lacks daily is horrifying. What we take for granted, he can only watch on a flickering TV screen. But always there is Ma, giving him structure, love and an imaginative life that grows beyond the locked door. It’s also worth mentioning that Jack’s narration is imbued with a sweetness that is endearing. He has the natural humour of a 5 year old and it often brings moments of lightness to the book.
Jack takes his small world in, observing everything, noticing the minute differences in surroundings and hungers for friendship from any other living thing – so much so that the death of Plant and the short stay of a spider are spikes in his emotional development. His sensitivity enables him to retell Ma’s pain without fully understanding what he sees – but we do. When she spends a day “Gone” to bitter, blank depression, Jack is left to live out the hours on his own. She knows what he is being denied, what she has to deny him in order to get him (and herself) through the days.
And so, inevitably it proves too much. The weight of the future is heavy and the past is too much to bear. Ma is determined that Jack will not turn 6 inside Room. Donoghue breaks the book in half with a heart-stopping escape and eventual rescue. In this dark fairytale of childhood, Jack becomes his Ma’s hero and his bravery is breathtaking. The story doesn’t end simply – in “Outside” the flood of everyday is too loud, too bright, and so initially too much for Jack. Freedom is a not a release at first – it is a frightening retreat into himself. Where before his imagination set him free, now Jack is undone by a simple set of stairs. I think that the reality of everyday life to a child born in captivity proves to be the most interesting element of this book. Their poignant introduction into the world we all know is a profoundly unsettling experience for them and it is the break in routine (however horrifying that routine was) that finally causes Ma to experience a total breakdown. After all, in Room it was the ferocious force of motherhood that gave her days structure and purpose – Outside Ma is free to acknowledge the horror of her stolen years. Her recovery and Jack’s development are depicted in a nuanced, delicately wrought way that is at times deeply sad, but ultimately uplifting.
I don’t always need to be entertained by a book – but if it doesn’t interest me or get me thinking it’s a long, hard slog to get through it. So I flew through the pages, with a sort of macabre fascination. One of the most interesting moments for me as a reader came in the second half of the book. When Ma is being interviewed about her abduction and imprisonment, how she raised her son and the “shocking” fact that she still breastfeeds him, she laughs and says:
“In this whole story, that’s the shocking detail?”
That made me stop and think – it was one of those strange moments where you realise that the writer has caught you, the reader, in a quietly judgmental thought. Because I did find the moments of breastfeeding slightly shocking, despite it being the obvious and natural thing to occur in the circumstances.
So what would you have done differently as a mother in this situation? Do you think that Ma made the right decision in keeping the truth of their imprisoned life secret from Jack? I’d love to know what you thought about Room – so let your inner critic out and tell me in the comments section below.
Book 3 announcement coming very soon. Tomorrow in fact. I’ve written it down, so it must be true.