Room with a View

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Unfortunately, I haven't gotten any writing done this weekend--one, because I've been grading World Lit papers that I have to give back to my students Tuesday, and two, because I've been obsessively reading Emma Donoghue's Booker-short-listed novel Room all weekend.

I'll admit that before I began reading this novel, I was a bit skeptical. Even though it appeared on tons of "Best of..." lists last year, I didn't think I would enjoy it very much. First of all, I'm not a big fan of captivity narratives, especially ones involving rape. The premise of the novel--a kidnapped woman is entrapped in a room for seven years and repeatedly raped over the course of that time, birthing a son who is her only companion--sounds far drearier than the book Donoghue writes, in part because the story is not told from the woman's point of view, but from the point of view of her five-year-old son.  The resulting book isn't so much a captivity narrative as it is a touching story of growing up completely shut out from the rest of the world, of beginning to understand "reality," of exploring the mother-child relationship in this most traumatic of circumstances.

What drew me to the novel, then, was the very question it raised about the nature of reality, about the consequence of waking someone to the knowledge that there is a whole world outside their own experiences that they never knew existed. It's a question I'm very interested in in my own writing and especially in the novel I'm currently working on--and in some way, a question I'm exploring in every story I write.  ***Slight Spoilers*** For Jack, Donoghue's narrator in Room, Room is all he knows.  His only companions are his mother and his friends, Bed, Meltedy Spoon, Rug, Wardrobe, etc. For him, there are only two realities, what's "real" (what's in the room) and what's TV (what's fantasy or imaginary). His awakening to the knowledge that what's TV is also what's real, that the children on TV, the police cars and firetrucks, are also real, is skillfully and poignantly rendered.  Donoghue deserves all the accolades she's getting.

I'll admit that for the first 10% of the novel, I still wasn't sure if I was going to like the book.  The narrating voice is a five-year-old's, and although I usually like adult novels told from this sort of alternative point of view, I wasn't sure if I bought Jack's voice at first. I've spent considerable time with two- to four-year-old boys these past few years (mostly friends' children and my fiancĂ©'s two totally awesome, genius nephews), and when I tried to imagine any of them speaking the way Jack did, I couldn't. He simultaneously seemed verbally inferior and superior to every child I knew that age. At times, he thought in a highly developed way, but then he'd also mess up conjugating simple verbs or reordering sentences in a way I felt he should have mastered much earlier, especially considering how much time his mother spends teaching him vocabulary and reading. As I read more and got to know Jack better, though, I realized how judgmental that was. I realized Jack's quirks were not some failure on the writer's part, but were in fact part of what made him special, the same way that all kids have certain things that it takes them longer to master than it takes others. His turning every object into a proper noun (Room, Rug, Remote), which initially grated, eventually became endearing and understandable. I loved every character in this book (other than Old Nick, the kidnapper), probably more because of their flaws. They all felt so extremely real to me, so elegantly and insightfully drawn.  The dialogue (and more importantly, what's not being said) was so well done, so subtle, nuanced, honest, believable. And I have to say the last few pages, when I was wondering how in the world the story was going to end, were handled so beautifully, so brilliantly, so perfectly.

So if you're looking for a new novel to check out, and nothing I've said so far has turned you off, you should definitely pick up Room. If you want to read a little bit more about it first, I suggest this article.

One last thing about the author: one of the main reasons I wanted to read this book was because Donoghue is also an academic, although I don't think she's a "practicing" one right now. (Meaning, she isn't a professor at a university, and I don't think she's currently doing academic research or writing.)  She holds a Ph.D. in eighteenth-century literature, which is also my field, and on more than one occasion I've been doing research and needed to cite an article or book she or her partner, Chris Roulston, an associate professor in women's studies, wrote. So I felt like I had this whole other connection to her before I ever read Room, and I was really curious to see what kind of fiction writer she was. And she didn't disappoint. I will definitely check out her other novels now.

I hope you guys had a more productive writing weekend than I did. Even if I didn't write a single word, though, I'm feeling inspired and got to read a book I loved, so the weekend wasn't a total waste. :-)


Anonymous,  April 24, 2011 at 7:32 PM  

Sometimes we just have to read. Reading is what helps make a writer better. Just call it research. :0)

Lacy Marschalk April 24, 2011 at 7:45 PM  

You're absolutely right, Lauralynn. That's why I feel absolutely no guilt about taking off a few days every once in awhile to read a really good book, especially a well-written one that I feel I can learn something about technique from.

Research. Haha. Yes, I love being in a field where blowing off your responsibilities all day reading a good book is considered "research." :-)

Dr. Coupon April 24, 2011 at 8:23 PM  

Thanks for reviewing this one! I've been wondering about it, but have been turned off by all the good AND bad press about it. I'm downloading it on my Kindle tonight and saving it for the plane ride. (I'll let you know how it goes.)

Lacy Marschalk April 25, 2011 at 12:34 AM  

Hope you like it, Sam! Have you read any of her lit criticism before?

Vicki Keire April 25, 2011 at 2:26 PM  

Actually, I appreciate the slight spoilers. I've almost picked this up more times than I can count and was completely unaware of the rape/captivity aspect of it. Not sure I have the mental space for something that hardcore right now. Which is funny, because I've been inhaling everything I can find @ YA mental illness. That's not hardcore at all. :)
Sorry, research flash: comparative captivity narratives involving children, contemporary and otherwise...
You should get in touch with her. Just email her or something. You're in an interesting position as a writer/ academic: There's that line between "pulp" and "serious" that I'm sure you've brushed against. If you haven't yet, you will at some point. And it has some pretty significant consequences either way you swing. If you like the way Donoghue has managed to navigate it, it'd be worth getting to know her better.
Dr. Wyss was great at pushing me to contact anyone and everyone I found remotely interesting. I have no shame. :)

Lacy Marschalk April 25, 2011 at 2:45 PM  

Vicki, don't let the rape aspect of the book turn you off from it. That's why I initially didn't think I could handle it (or didn't want to handle it), but it's narrated in such a way (again, from a five-year-old's point of view, who has no knowledge of sex or rape) that I never felt queasy like I normally do in those kinds of stories. (It helps that he never actually sees it happen.) The reader understands a lot of what's happening even when Jack doesn't, but Donoghue goes there just enough to get her point across without making the reader overly uncomfortable. And that's coming from someone who is extremely squeamish about rape.

Contacting her would be awesome, but I'm afraid she might be too big a celebrity now. She probably gets tons of mail now. Maybe I should try contacting Chris Roulston instead? lol Maybe I'll even bump into her at a conference sometime.

What YA mental illness and captivity narratives are you reading these days? If you have any recommendations, I'd love to hear them.

Tawnysha Greene May 21, 2011 at 10:48 AM  

I just read this book and completely agree with you. I found the first part of it grating and difficult to read, but once I understood Jack and the way he thought and spoke, the book became so much better. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book--I never would have picked it up otherwise!

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