The first book I read after fall quarter had dusted down was Emma Donaghue’s novel, Room. I can’t avoid “reading as a writer,” and thinking about how the writer does and makes her thing, but wanted to immerse myself, so I refused the urge to take notes.
The narrative procedures used in this book are inseparable from the sensational story, which is, to quote the Wikipedia entry, “told from the perspective of a five-year-boy, Jack, who is being held captive in a small room along with his mother.” The book is a page-turner, sure, but what kept me riveted was the grace with which Donaghue sustained the narrative told, first-person, in a young child’s words. It’s of particular interest to me because I know it’s so damn hard to do. (My novel, The Watery Girl, is told from the point of view of a seven-year-old, but I didn’t want to limit myself to her language. So I used a close third person, still intimate, often imbued with thoughts and words directly mined from the protagonist Claire, but third person allows space to wiggle language. First person really locks you in. All writing is artifice, but if you want to convince a reader like this one, you better stick close to what a child would actually say. And more than that, Donaghue’s Jack breathes the breath of childhood, lives out its logic. I’m convinced her sentences are true kid-think.)
As I read Room, I kept holding my breath (not only because of the story) to see if Donaghue could sustain that thing with the kid. She did. There was not one moment when I disbelieved I was reading Jack’s true five-year-old thoughts. Yes, Jack is precocious and smart, but the writer explained his particular intelligence so effortlessly when needed, and made clear that Jack’s mother worked hard to engage her son in his (albeit tiny) world. Reading about their life in Room, I was enrapt and also exhausted, imagining how hard it would be to live in a single room with a child, non-stop, for five years. (Putting aside the whole ordeal–the sheer exertion of the character’s work as a parent was amazing. And yet believable. I bought, without question, that Jack was her redemption.)
When I opened the book, I didn’t know the plot, just the premise. As I read, I wondered how Donaghue would sustain the claustrophobia of one room for an entire novel. When I realized their situation was about to change, the novel became “about” something very different from what I expected. I was glad. Thinking, as I have been this year, about brain plasticity and pinning many hopes to that idea, it fascinated me to read and consider about how Jack might (or might not) adapt to life outside Room. And like many who have read the book probably have done, I wondered whether we each have a Room of some sort of other that’s shaped what we expect and want from the world.
I want to read more of Donaghue’s writing, soon, because anyone who can do what she did in Room is worth the time.