Monday, November 15, 2010
Room is the story of five-year-old Jack, who, as the narrative begins, has lived his entire life, along with his mother, in captivity in an eleven-by-eleven foot room. When the two are unexpectedly thrust into the world, both must learn to redefine their relationship to it, and to each other, in ways that are, in a sense, even more painful and traumatizing than their captivity has been. Donoghue draws freely upon children's "reversal" literature, most prominently Alice in Wonderland, to present the reader with the story of one of the great developmental dilemmas faced by all children -- how to understand, interpret, and navigate reality -- made exponentially more poignant for Jack by the sensory and social deprivation of his early years.
Jack's narrative voice is captivating, and his young mother is a giant of strength, love, and resourcefulness, who, in their imprisonment, has turned Jack's cruelly confined world into one of beauty and adventure. The two are completely dependent upon each other, and the transition to a less-enmeshed relationship is one of the most difficult challenges Jack faces in "Outside." For this reason, I think the book speaks especially to mothers, whose most important task is preparing and allowing our children to stand on their own and to emerge into a world not bounded or defined by us. As the mother of a son approaching Jack's age -- a boy who, like Jack, has outstanding strengths, coupled with significant difficulties negotiating the sensory and social worlds -- I felt an even deeper kinship with the novel's narrator.
In addition to the compelling character of Jack, and the delicately-drawn relationship between him and his mother, Room fascinated me for its description of a child developing in confinement, a topic that has been an interest of mine since I saw Werner Herzog's film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser while an undergrad, and, later, sang the wonderful Brahms settings of poetry by Georg Friedrich Daumer, who had cared for Kaspar Hauser after the latter was found, as a young man, wandering the streets of Nuremberg after a life spent in captivity.
I loved this book so much that I am going to try to sneak in a second read before it's due back at the library.
Here is an interesting clip of Emma Donoghue explaining how she devised Jack's narrative voice.