Thursday, March 24, 2011

Reading Notes - Room

Some time ago I had a look at the shortlist for the 2010 Man Booker prize. There were some damn good books on it, as usual - Andrea Levy's wonderful The Long Song, set in early 19th century Jamaica and dealing with slavery and its aftermath; the eventual winner, Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question, which I greatly enjoyed and would concede is a worthy winner. (It also contained Peter Carey's Parrot and Olivier in America, which, due to my stubborn, inexplicable and unAustralian distaste for Carey's style and literary voice, I have not read, and am unlikely to do so).

For me, though, looking at the shortlist, the clear stand-out (and the book I would have chosen, had I been a judge) was Emma Donoghue's compelling, beautiful Room. Room is the story of 5-year-old Jack and his Ma, a loving mother-child dyad who are all the world to each other, in a completely literal sense. Jack's Ma, it transpires, is a prisoner, kidnapped and held in a locked garden shed ("Room") for seven years by a sociopathic man refered to only as Old Nick.

Donoghue's decision to tell this story in Jack's voice was absolutely the right one for creating the intimacy and sense of connection that is the book's strength. Told by an adult, or even partly in an adult voice, Room ran the risk of being prurient, sensationalist, and disgusting. (Think of the visceral reaction you had, or at least that I know I had, to the Fritzl case, or the Jaycee Lee Dugard case.) Donoghue's triumph in this book is to give us a story that is wholly about a mother and her son, about what might happen if that relationship was intensified and forced to be unmediated by the world, through no pathology of the mother's but rather by the evil acts of another.

There is without doubt a sense of menace and shudderiness (for want of a better word) in the first part of the book, where Jack and Ma are still trapped in Room. Old Nick, never directly seen by Jack and rarely heard by him, is a malevolent force who informs Ma's decisions, talk, and moods. The accommodations that Ma has to make to keep Jack safe and away from Old Nick are terrible; Faustian bargains at their most distilled. Seeing it through Jack's sensitive, intelligent but childlike eyes, the details are missing but the essence of domination, violence and the power of resistance is evident.

The ways of Ma and Jack's life, and Donoghue's surmises about how such confinement would affect mother and child's development, are fascinating and ring true to me. Jack's physical limitations (how could he develop good spatial perception when all space is known, and tiny?) make sense as does his incredibly advanced literacy and numeracy. Their deeply intimate yet matter-of-fact breastfeeding relationship is also entirely logical, and beautifully rendered. As a woman currently breastfeeding a verbal child, the dance of comfort and connection around nursing rings completely true to me. (It is an indictment of our society that when Ma and Jack are out of Room, one of the things that provokes vulgar curiosity and revulsion in the public is the fact that 5-year-old Jack is still nursing. As Ma, incredulous, says in her TV interview: After everything that happened to me over the past 7 years, THAT'S what you find shocking? REALLY?)

One of the things I loved the most in this book was the creation of Ma through Jack's eyes. Ma is all the world to him and what a person she is - fiercely loving, protective, intelligent, and human. The days she and Jack share, in their tiny Room, are filled with her commitment to nurturing and teaching her son and keeping him safe. And although both Ma and Jack exhibit unmistakeable signs of the fear, stress, anxiety and unnaturalness that shadows their lives (Jack with his obsessive counting, Ma with the days when she mentally checks out and is "Gone"), the two of them remain, to my mind, remarkably rich, well-balanced, and functional throughout. One of my favourite passages in the book comes after their escape from Room, when Ma is giving a TV interview about her captivity. Her lucidity, scorn for platitude, fierceness and strength shines through as she takes down the interviewer but good. (The fact that the interview carries a severe emotional backlash for Ma and Jack is also not disguised or minimised. Donoghue isn't about hiding the magnitude of this situation, at any time).

I think Donoghue's message here is incredibly powerful and hopeful and a testament to the character she has created in Ma - These people are strong, and they are not complicit in the subjugation and abuse they are subjected to. The fault and guilt lies with Old Nick in its entirety, at all times. And despite the trauma that will be part of Ma forever, Old Nick does not have the capacity to draw her (and Jack) into his abusive mental world; Ma stands apart, holding Jack with her on her island of connection and consent and love. This might seem an obvious message until you consider the insidious and sly tenor of commentary that always seems to creep into reportage of kidnap-and-imprisonment cases - the insistence that the kidnapee must have developed some attachment, some form of Stockholm syndrome; the notion (explicated in the Klampusch case in particular) that escape *would* have been possible, had the victim *really* wanted to get away; the unspoken idea that even these victims, the most victim-y of all possible victims if you think about it, must have in some way contributed to their abuse, or their abuser's selection of them. Donoghue, as I, calls bullshit on this egregious and especially nasty manifestation of victim blaming, through the person and dignity of Ma.

And Jack - oh, Jack. Was ever a 5 year old boy more exquisitely realised in fiction? Jack is three-dimensional, breathing through every line in this book. He is bright, loving, perceptive, wonderful - and he is a child. There is nothing adult in his way of being. This does not imply that he is simplistic or stupid, naturally. As a parent with a 5 year old currently, I recognise the speech patterns and thought trajectories with a shock of familiarity. Donoghue has said that she drew upon her experiences with her own son in creating Jack, and that shows. He is, quite simply, lovely - a joy on the earth, a wonderful boy.

So I would give Room my highest recommendation. Despite its subject matter and the potential for disgust, this book is not creepy or disgusting at all. It is powerful, moving, engaging, and one of the books that stays with you for a long, long time.

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