She moves. “Jack, there’s a lot of things in the world.”
“Zillions and zillions. If you try to fit them all in your head, it’ll just burst.” [Room, pg. 228]
My Booker reading continues with Emma Donoghue’s Room, which I can’t help but view as a curious inclusion. It’s a sort of fictionalised misery memoir, with the twist that its narrator, the five-year-old boy Jack, isn’t aware that he’s miserable.
Jack’s mother, whose name we never learn because Jack chooses to parse it as an unecessary additional appelation whenever anyone uses it, was abducted some years prior to the first pages of Room; her abductor, whom Jack knows as Old Nick, has imprisoned her in a purpose-built, hermetically sealed shed in his backyard. Here he sexually, physically and emotionally abuses her. Their first child was stillborn, but their second, Jack, has survived and – as Room begins – Ma is becoming more and more certain that he cannot live much longer in such isolation without being damaged irrevocably.
Certainly the key feature of Room is the manner in which Donoghue constructs a narrative from a viewpoint so limited, so influenced by a world only eleven feet square. Jack has no use for articles, for instance – there is no need for parts of speech which identify the specifity of a noun. Everything in Jack’s world is specific: Room itself, of course, but also Bed and Table and Chair. “We have thousands of things to do every morning,” he insists, simultaneously confident that the images he sees on his television are entirely invented, that the world is Room, Ma, and Old Nick.
This narrative voice might remind the reader a little of Mark Haddon’s in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, another garlanded novel focusing on a young narrator with a narrowed worldview. It must be said, alas, that Donoghue doesn’t maintain the style as well as Haddon – at times, she is overly cute, and crucially, when Jack is exposed to the wider world, she does not handle the inevitable tensions as well as Haddon: Room sags fatally in its final third.
Inspired of course by the Fritzl case, Room is a topical novel which manages its central conceit competently if not entirely consistently. It is also one which seems rather squeamish about that conceit – Jack’s viewpoint, memorably innocent and memorably wronged, allows Donoghue to swerve away from the more complex psychologies of his mother, father and other relatives.
Room thus packs a kind of emotional punch, but constantly pulls it. Its inclusion on the Booker shortlist feels like an attempt to open the award out to new kinds of readers, and this is no bad thing. But it is an odd inclusion not just because it is a different kind of book; it’s an unusual choice because it is a relatively slight one.