Today I’m five. I was four last night, going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero. “Was I minus numbers?”For the first time in a long time I don’t know how to begin reviewing a book. This is in part because I don’t want to give away key aspects of the plot, and in part because the novel is extraordinary and affecting, and my attempts to capture it fall far from my reach.
“Hmm?” Ma does a big stretch.
“Up in Heaven. Was I minus one, minus two, minus three ---?”
“Nah, the numbers didn’t start till you zoomed down.”
”Through Skylight. You were all sad till I happened in your tummy.”
Room is powerful, complex and compelling; though the premise is simple, the execution is detailed and ornate but direct. Perhaps I should start with the premise – Jack is a child raised by a kidnapped woman and fathered by her abductor; through the lens of an adult we read truths in his narration of which he is unaware.
Donoghue has enormous skill, great sympathy and imagination. Though undoubtedly inspired by one or many news stories of women kept captive for years, and though clearly well researched (as evidenced both in her acknowlegements and in the clarity and truth of the writing), Room is fiction of the purest sort – it illuminates more sharply than fact, resonates more strongly than reality, and provides insights that are piercing and crystalline. The novel as a whole is seamless, with not event he faintest suggestion of a false note anywhere in the 321 pages.
Room is structured in five chapters – Jack’s life as he’s always known it, the events leading up to and the aftermath of Ma’s revelation that the universe is far larger than he ever knew or could imagine, her realisation that a turning point is coming, and after (the immediate after and the beginning of a new reality).
The first half of the novel takes place in Room and is fascinating because of both Donoghue’s imagination and Ma’s – Jack’s routine is structured and varied, created to allow him an upbringing as well rounded as possible. I was a little reminded of Bad Boy Bubby, without the creep factor. There’s a brilliant and gradual increase in tension, as Jack’s growing need for independence and inquiry as he grows up conflict with the imperatives of staying safe in Room.
The second half takes place in the world, and as the canvas widens so does the narrative emphasis. I was again reminded of another work, this time Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, as Jack attempts to interact with and understand people whose experiences and worldview are significantly different from his. The first half of Room is imaginative and very, very good; the second half is viscerally gripping, primarily as Jack’s mother tries to readapt to a world long ago lost to her, and Jack to a reality he knows almost nothing about.
The contrast between people who mean well and their actions is so beautifully portrayed I was simultaneously astounded and vicariously angered. One scene in particular, when Jack’s uncle, aunt and cousin take him to the zoo but decides to stop en route at a mall to buy a child’s birthday present, is simply brilliant – I found myself speaking to the page, telling Paul off, fortunately when I was alone. I was similarly inflamed by the media presence, the judgement of people about Jack’s mother’s decisions, and even by Jack’s unintentionally distressing words and actions.
And every scene, every moment, was a useful part of the whole - a whole that will certainly feature prominently in my review of 2010, if not taking the spot for most memorable novel. - Alex