Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Review: 'Room' by Emma Donoghue.

First things first: I just wanted to say thank you to all the lovely people who have taken the time to read my ramblings on all things bookish. Blogs are generally self-indulgent things, and despite my tentative plugging on Twitter and Facebook, I am genuinely surprised at the number of views I've had so far, and the number of people who have said they like it. I started this because I missed thinking about books in a way that was more than, 'I liked that book. It was a good read', so to find out that other, actual people are taking the time to read it is just lovely. I am, of course, assuming these people are real. And if they're not - well, the views are still counted and I'm none the wiser, so happiness prevails.

Now, to business: the review. It occurred to me the other day, as I wittered on about books I hate, that I hadn't actually reviewed anything that hasn't made me laugh in some way. So, to show I've got a serious side, I thought I'd pick a book that covers deeper issues than Regency zombies, French wind-up gags and sex-fuelled Trojans. I think, in this respect, I've picked a good 'un. It first came to my attention whilst I was watching a programme about the Man Booker Shortlist 2010, and I sought it out not long after.

'Room' is the story of a five year old boy, Jack, who has lived his entire life in the confines of four walls, with just his mother and his 'friends' on the TV for company. He does not yearn for much more, because he doesn't know there's much more; he has been brought up to believe that there is nothing outside of the four walls, that the entire universe exists in that small space, and that nothing else - especially not anything on the TV - is real.

The first thing that will hit you about this is the language; it is told entirely through the eyes of Jack, and so the language and the thought processes used are that of a child's. In this respect, I was reminded of 'A Clockwork Orange' by Anthony Burgess; with that particular novel, I struggled for a good few chapters before I finally learnt the language of the 'droogs', by which point some of the most violent scenes had taken place, and I hadn't even so much as raised an eyebrow. I found that I was sympathetic to Alex because I hadn't fully grasped the horror of his actions, as I didn't understand them when I was reading them, and by the time I realised what he had done, I was already on his side. It's always easier to feel sorry for someone if you don't know the full truth. In the same way, I somewhat struggled to understand Jack, until I got into his mindset, and once I was there, I began to see things from his point of view. This is key to the novel, and an incredibly clever tool of Donoghue's, for it inverts all your feelings towards Jack and his mother; if Jack is unhappy at something, you are unhappy at it as well, even though good, common, adult sense tells you that you should be otherwise.

Given the title, I was ready for a fairly claustraphobic read, anticipating that it would be set entirely within a room, and I also did wonder if it would get a bit boring. However, fairly early on, they do escape - as you may have guessed, they are being held against Jack's mother's will - in amazingly dramatic circumstances, and from then on, they are in the wide world. It is here that the story truly begins; everything else, bar the escape, is a preparation for the reader, getting you into Jack's way of thinking, of his wants, needs and perceptions, so that when he finally sees the world, and how big it is, you too feel the same anxiety, and as he begins to explore the most basic things we take for granted - air, clouds, grass, a patch of sky bigger than a skylight - I found that I was marvelling at it as much as he was; not so much the things themselves, but his reactions.

I also thought this was going to be a bit of a novelisation of something similar to a Josef Fritzl situation, so I will admit that whilst I was wanting to read the book, I was also reluctant, given the expected subject matter. Whilst I was somewhat right about the circumstances under which Jack and his mother are in the Room, I found as I read on that it was less about a traumatic event and more about discovery; we are privy to a child's first view of the world, and the subsequent fear and wonder of it, his mother's rehabilitation into a world she hasn't seen for years, and the reactions of family members who presumed their loved one dead. It's harrowing, but not in the way you might expect; I was expecting to be shocked to my core, and I was, but more at the relationship between Jack and his mother; it's hard to appreciate the lengths a parent might go to in order to protect their child, or the freedom they might crave from that child, all at the same time.

Donoghue's novel is not a favourite of mine; I found it tiring, given it's quite an emotionally heavy read, and I sometimes found that, whilst I was on Jack's side always, he was a bit odious at times - but then, all five year old children are, even to other five year olds. Jack's mother was also a thorn in my side; not because I didn't like her, but because I couldn't work out how I felt about her. Adult Jasmine was filled with respect, awe for her strength, and pity for her situation; but Child Jasmine, who was hanging around with Jack, thought she was really annoying, not at all sympathetic to Jack's concerns and just a bit selfish, really. Then, of course, there's the way of telling it; whilst Donoghue chose an excellent manner in which to approach a touchy subject - one that allows innocence to still exist, without clouding the novel with ugly scenes - it still doesn't change the fact that each time you have to reach into your 'Jack' frame of mind before you can start to appreciate the story, and that's hard work when you're tired and just want a chapter to read before bed.

'Room' is, however, an exceptional novel for managing to take an ugly, cruel subject, and turn it into a journey. It is poignant, sweet, heartbreaking at times and thought-provoking; it still played on my mind each night after the light went out. I was expecting it to be a bit of a weepy novel as well, but it's not, because at it's core it is about hope, strength, change, and learning how to cope with traumatic events. It never occurred to me before writing this, but Jack's mother went through a traumatic event when she was incarcerated; Jack's trauma comes in their release. I couldn't say why I would recommend this novel, because I'm not really sure why I like it myself; it's just a novel I find myself reaching for from time to time, wanting to read without really knowing why. It's not a book to get lost in, or even to enjoy at that, but if thought-provoking is what you're looking for, it's definitely one to consider.

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