Have you heard about Room, by Emma Donoghue, the novel that has been on a lot of best-of lists this year? It’s the kind of book to attract a lot of attention, because it’s from the perspective of a five-year-old, and one who is in a very unusual and horrifying situation. Jack’s entire world is Room, Ma, and Old Nick. He was born in Room and has never left it — and his mother is the prisoner of a sinister man who has kept him there in a kind of fortified dungeon for his own sexual exploitation. Emma Donoghue went down a risky road by trying to capture this horrific scenario with the voice of a bubbly five-year-old boy who has no understanding of the horror of his situation. Though it seems to falter in a few places, Room does manage to pull off this trick, and creates a moving and ultimately joyful world in the relationship between mother and son.
Room is a strange hybrid novel. While reading it, I was aware of at least three different ways my mind wanted to read it, and how I kept jumping back and forth among the three. In one way, Room is a fascinating and detailed psychological portrait. It captures the mindset of an adult imprisoned for seven years in a room as a slave, helpless and forced to be submissive to protect herself. It also explores the admittedly intriguing psychology of a child raised in an eleven-by-eleven foot space, raised to believe what he saw on television was all fake, that no other people in the world exist but himself, his mother, and the man who brings them everything they need, but also keeps them imprisoned. For Jack, the world is complete and satisfying; it’s all he’s ever known, and so it is not lacking in any way. He is playful and finds ways to make toys out of garbage or household objects. He can’t conceive of trees or wide open space or animals. All this is gripping stuff for me — I’ve always been very interested in psychology. But that is only “Room” on one level.
“Room” has at least two other ways to be read. Another way I read it was as a story of human relationships like any other realistic novel. The relationship between Ma and Jack is deeply moving; I did fully believe that Jack was able to revive Ma’s interest in the world and living. As their relationship developed and was tested in new ways, I found myself sometimes doubting the realism. I don’t want to spoil the gripping plot for anyone, but at times I did find myself pausing and wondering if she would really do that or if he really would know to respond in that way. But ultimately, the way these two created their worlds around each other was a deeply satisfying element of the novel.
Emma Donoghue is conducting another experiment in this novel, and that is the study of voice. She has made the bold choice of writing an entire novel from the point of view of a five-year-old boy. Throughout the novel I found myself wondering two things. First: is this really the way a five-year-old would think? And second: is this getting old?
After all, you may be able to reproduce a five-year-old’s thoughts and mannerisms perfectly, but it would not be sophisticated enough to make a compelling novel. Donoghue has to walk a careful line between compelling and realistic. At times I found the five-year-old voice getting obnoxiously cute, particularly in the use of sound effects and ungrammatical phrases. I don’t doubt that’s the way a five-year-old would say it, but is it good enough fodder for fiction?
You’ll have to decide for yourself if you read the book, which I recommend as an interesting reading experiment. The writing is ultimately limited, however, by the extremely limited voice that Donoghue has chosen.