Room, by Emma Donoghue, Picador RRP£12.99, 336 pages
Emma Donoghue’s new novel, which has been longlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize, is almost the opposite of unputdownable. It is, in fact, very difficult to pick up – so disturbing is its subject matter. A young woman and her five-year-old son, Jack, live together as prisoners locked in an 11 sq ft room. A television and a bed, a few books and feeble toys are all they have.
They are deprived of a view of the outside world and of all company, apart from the nightly visit of the woman’s kidnapper and rapist, Jack’s father “Old Nick”, in whose garden they are trapped in their terrible home secured by combination locks.
The young boy cowers in the wardrobe at night, counting the wheezing of the bedsprings, 176 ... 215 – waiting for the moment that Old Nick leaves and he can retake his place at his mother’s side. He sees the strange marks on his mother in the morning, noticing her different odours. The horror and claustrophobia of this situation cannot be overstated.
For a reader all this horror is problematic: you would probably not consider buying a true-crime book on this subject and it is hard not to speculate whether it is a little cheap or even exploitative for a novelist to employ such a scenario. I can’t think of a time when I have read a book so ruefully. At least the rapist is not the heroine’s father, you find yourself thinking grimly.
Yet, a third of the way through Room, perhaps at the point that an escape plan is dreamed up, I began to appreciate its many qualities. For all the traumas of the setting, a lot of the things in the book have a curious charm. Jack’s voice, which carries the entire narrative, is playful and searching, and his intelligent childish idiom is inventive and life affirming. However, what chiefly distinguishes this book from some schlock horror assault, what renders it literary fiction perhaps, is the way in which it is filled with inspiring and carefully wrought ideas about parents and children.
The mother in Room has extremely high standards of parenting, an astonishing fact which Donoghue somehow makes very believable. As a mother, the book’s heroine makes a great many good decisions: encouraging her son to believe in God’s love, giving him the impression that there isn’t a world outside Room to be missed and allowing him to breastfeed when he asks, despite his advancing years, for she knows they both need all the comfort they can get. Is this what all children want, you wonder, to live life practically in the womb until they are five?
Is the author possibly suggesting that any kind of being born is an extreme life trauma through which an infant must be cosseted and soothed and indulged until it can stand on its own feet?
The love of mother and son shines brightly through these early passages.The two pass their days playing tender games of make-believe, telling each other stories, doing jolly exercises to keep themselves healthy, singing songs and nursery rhymes, the day top-and-tailed by short delicious bouts of cartoon-watching.
The mother’s loving patience with her child, the way she explains things in words and pictures he can understand, never patronising or dismissing him, is always moving and heartening. She is not just coping, in terms of Jack’s development, she is ensuring that he thrives.
The relationship of mother and son is drawn as a powerful instrument against hate and violence. It is in itself a work of art and it is what is keeping the heroine alive, through all her terrors. Would a woman in her early twenties have these tremendous resources, we may wonder briefly, but this woman does and it is just about believable.
Yet Donoghue takes pains not to make things too rosy between this pair, and occasionally Jack describes his mother in a state he calls “Gone”. At these moments when he tries to engage her she simply isn’t available to him, her utter despair claiming her completely, and he knows he must watch cartoons all the day, like many a young child with a seriously depressed parent.
Surprisingly – and yet it feels like deep psychological truth – it is only when the victims escape their prison that their levels of misery begin to outweigh their strategies for coping. They slowly start to build their lives, needing new character traits to meet this new world – but how, mentally and emotionally, do you organise that?
In filling this book with things that are both truly horrific and rather lovely, Emma Donoghue has achieved a work that is deeply unsettling on every level. It is a strange paradox that a book about imprisonment and torture should have become an arena for discussing the proper care and love of children. I think I am glad to have read it.