Quantcast

Monday, October 25, 2010

Room: "Human Kind Cannot Bear Very Much Reality"

A novel narrated by a five-year-old boy with the title water-colored on the cover? Awww, how precious, right? Not so. Not by a long shot. Emma Donoghue's Room is one of the most fresh, terrifyingly good novels I've read this year, but it's anything but precious. Room works for three reasons: 1) The originality of five-year-old Jack's voice. 2) The originality of the story itself. 3) How these two combine to create a work of fiction that leaves its readers absolutely floored.

First, Jack's voice: He narrates the story as any normal five-year-old would. He's curious. He's unintentionally funny. And he negotiates some pretty tricky existential questions. (Is Room still there if we're not in it?) But my favorite part of Jack's voice is how he points out the absurdity of things we often take for granted. For instance, Jack hits his head, an adult says "careful," and Jack wonders, "Why do persons only say that after the hurt?" Also, Jack explaining lottery tickets: "The little cards with numbers all over are called a lottery, idiots buy them hoping to get magicked into millionaires." That one slayed me!

Secondly, Donoghue's plot is bold. A woman is kidnapped and forced to live in a shed in the backyard of the kidnapper's house. She has a son by her kidnapper. The son lives the first five years of his life in captivity with his mother. Donoghue says the plot was inspired by real-world events. But imagining what that ordeal must have been like to someone who doesn't consider it an ordeal but as simple reality, and then telling it as realistically as it seems, is a tremendous literary feat. The only thing I'll say about the rest of the plot — and normally I hate when reviewers do this, but I can't think of a book for which this is more true — is that the less you know about it, the more rewarding your reading experience. That's how it was for me. But know this: It's not always smooth emotional sailing. It can be dark, it can be incredibly sad, and it can be frightening, in the sense of getting a glimpse at humanity's worst. That's really what I mean by "terrifyingly good."

Finally, the combination of Jack's voice and the creativity of the plot make for a novel that unpacks in such a way that we, as adults, learn about the world along with Jack. Inasmuch as any five-year-old can come of age, we practically come of age with him. It takes Jack's innocent perspective for us to see things like evil, celebrity, family and friendship in new and interesting lights. Additionally, the strength of the mother-son bond in the worst of circumstances comes through extraordinarily clearly as the plot unfolds. The connection could not possibly have been so strongly rendered with an omniscient narrator, or really even if the mother had been telling the story.

I can't recommend this book more highly. Because Room was on the Man Booker Prize shortlist, I took a flier on it and am absolutely delighted I did. Simply put, Room's one of the best novels of 2010.

(The title quote is from a TS Eliot poem. It is quoted by a character in Room, and is a near-perfect seven-word representation of the book.)

28 comments:

  1. Greg, what a marvelous review you've written! You have really captured the spirit of this story. I also just finished it and loved it. Do you know if Donoghue has other works?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Couldn't agree more with everything you said, including not giving much of the plot away. That said...sure would be fun to discuss it after most people have read it! Definitely one of the best books I've read this year.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I have a copy of Room waiting for me. I keep seeing stellar reviews, and I am absolutely intrigued. I hope it lives up to all the hype -- it sounds like it will.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Yes, it does indeed sound like a good book. I'm looking forward to picking up a copy. I especially like the idea of writing from a child's point of view . . .

    ReplyDelete
  5. Ooooh I can't wait to start this. What do you think, appropriate honeymoon reading? Hopefully I'll have more time in a few weeks and can give it the attention it deserves. Great review!

    ReplyDelete
  6. I agree with Amy that it is definitely a discussion-worthy book. Not a lot of spoilers to give away, but you're right -- some things are best discovered on your own.

    Great review.

    (p.s. Kathy if you don't mind my answering your question I know of one other novel by Emma Donoghue, Slammerkin; I'm sure she has others though)

    ReplyDelete
  7. I'm so glad to see you love this one too! It is my favorite so far this year.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I'm glad you enjoyed Room,Greg-it's on my Best of the Year list as well. Kathy,Emma Donoghue has a couple of historical novels,with Slammerkin being highly recommended by many. I haven't read that one but did enjoy Life Mask quite a bit.

    ReplyDelete
  9. You know I need a break from my supernatural books. This looks perfect and your review is great. I look forward to reading this.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I'll look for it.

    I, myself, have used the "less said the better" trope in a couple of reviews. It's annoying, but what do you do when it's true?

    ReplyDelete
  11. I loved this also and I enjoyed the voice of 5 year old Jack. I thought that it raised alot of other issues and thoughts like prolinged breastfeeding and I thought it was interesting that Jack had a higher than average vocabulary because of the constant contact he spend with his mum.

    ReplyDelete
  12. This sounds like such a unique book. Awesome review I can't wait to get my hands on it.

    ReplyDelete
  13. This was a great write up. I loved this book, one of my favorites of the entire year, and I've read a load of good books, so that's saying something!

    ReplyDelete
  14. I was absolutely blown away by this book. Glad to see it struck you as well. I can't remember the last time I was so affected by a book. When I finished, I closed it, said 'Wow', and just sat and stared for awhile.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I just finished this book and bumbled through something sort of resembling a review...hell I should have just called you. Excellent review. I agree, you just can't say much about this plot because the thrill (or the terror?) is the not knowing. It is freaking brilliant in every way.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I just won a copy of this, should receive it in the mail in a few days - I'm so keen to read it. Great review too!

    ReplyDelete
  17. Kathy - She also has one called The Sealed Letter, and I saw one of hers - Landing - at a local store the other day.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I'd already got a hankering or this book - now it's ten times worse! Great review :)

    ReplyDelete
  19. @Kathy - Thanks! Other commenters have mentioned a few of Donoghue's other novels, but a complete list of her work (including a few plays), is on her wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emma_Donoghue

    @Amy - Yeah, it is definitely a book that begs for conversation. It was really hard to resist the temptation to bring up some of the plot points to see what other people thought, but definitely didn't want to ruin it for folks who haven't discovered how awesome it is yet.

    @Erin - Definitely lived up to the hype! I became a bit wary with all the post-Booker "Room got hosed!" cries. But I'm glad I picked up. I think you will be too.

    @Trish - Jack's voice and perspective are really unique - and really work well! I hope you enjoy it!

    @Kerry - Well, I'm not sure what constitutes good honeymoon reading, but yes. ;)

    @Suzanne - Yeah, it's not so much spoiler just as much of a sense that you really have NO idea what's going to happen. That's what I loved about it. Donoghue certainly didn't take an easy ways out with this plot!

    ReplyDelete
  20. @nomareader - Soooo good!

    @lady T - Is Donoghue's other work (at least the one you've read) as well-written as Room? What's her non-child-narrator voice like?

    @Noe and Suz - This would be a PERFECT break from supernatural books. Maybe it'll convince you not to go back. ;)

    @C.B. - Yeah, it's hard to know when the "less is more" strategy is appropriate and when it's the reviewer just being lazy. Very fine line, but for reader of reviews and reviewer.

    @Jessica - You're right - definitely a lot of issues raised. Interesting point about why Jack's vocabulary may have been beyond a normal five-year-old's. The negative reviews of the book I've seen cited that as a turn-off; well, that and they said his voice wasn't consistent - that sometimes he sounded like a two-year-old. Not sure I agree with that assessment at all. I thought his voice was very faithfully rendered.

    @Brenna - Thanks - yeah, it really is a fantastic novel!

    ReplyDelete
  21. @TNBBC - Me too - I liked it even better than Freedom, and THAT'S saying something! ;)

    @Bookshelf - I had basically the same reaction when I finished. I immediately started researching Donoghue's other books, but it sounds like Room is pretty unique compared with the rest of her oeuvre. Too bad.

    @Sandy - Yeah, she really keeps you on your toes as a reader. You aren't ever comfortable in that you're sure you know what's going to happen.

    @mummazappa - Now, that's a nice win! Hope you enjoy it...

    @Kerry - You read any of her other stuff?

    @Kath - Thanks, but sorry to rub it in. :(

    ReplyDelete
  22. Now that is a ringing endorsement if ever I've read one. Room goes to the top of my list. Thanks, Greg.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Hi Greg,

    Thanks for stopping by my blog. I'm now following yours.

    I've been meaning to pick up this book for a while, and your review has convinced me to go ahead and buy it already!

    ReplyDelete
  24. Great review, Greg! I've found that this is a book that has stayed with me. I read it last month and still have flashes of it that I return to mull over.

    ReplyDelete
  25. I just finished Room and had the same reaction. I was astounded at the level of detail Donaghue was able to achieve using Jack's voice and his experiences. And I loved the Alice in Wonderland references (both subtle and explicit).

    I agree - one of the best books of the year.

    PB

    ReplyDelete
  26. Well, now I know which book I need to go pick up. Great review Greg. I also appreciate all the comments your followers posted. I would be an idiot not to try it.

    ReplyDelete
  27. Well,Greg-Life Mask is a completely different kettle of fish,as the story centers around a female sculptor in the Victorian era who is just starting to realize the true nature of her sexuality(I know that description sounds sleazy but the book is definitely not).

    More than one viewpoint is present and it's mainly told in the third person. I found it to be a deeply layered and engaging story,with a slow but steady pace. I do recommend it and will probably try to tackle Slammerkin again myself.

    ReplyDelete
  28. Well Mr. Zimmerman as always your review is spot on and very well written. I agree with all your points. This book was written with a very talented pen and Jack's voice was sweet, true and unintentionally funny. My most recent review was on Room and I linked your review to mine. Keep up the good reviews!

    ReplyDelete