My book group at school met last week to discuss the much-lauded Room by Emma Donoghue. Everyone agreed that it was a very good book, one that invited an inhaling of its contents rather than a slow, leisurely read. But we also felt that it stopped just short of being the stuff of "best of" lists, the lists on which the book is now being featured prominently. And it falls just short for most of us because why? A complicated question.
The story is well known by most by now. A nineteen year old undergrad is abducted from her campus by a forty-something stranger. He locks her in a storage shed that has been equipped with the basic necessities of life including a small skylight to let in daylight. The space is only eleven by eleven feet, the walls are reinforced with metal, there are other reinforcements as well, and the abductor who we come to know as "Old Nick" visits several nights a week to rape his prisoner. As the novel opens, she and her five year old son share this prison in the mother's seventh year of captivity.
Ordinarily I would take an instant pass on something like this, incapable as I am of taking in child in peril type stories and having zero interest in the more prurient aspects that something of this nature could take on. But Room is really nothing like what one might initially think. It may be inspired in part by the headlines of like stories, the darlings of tabloid fodder, but it takes a completely different direction. Because it is narrated by five year old Jack, and the author is completely faithful to his viewpoint, resisting at all turns the possibility of preaching the wrongs of such injustice. But here in that great strength of the novel is where our first problem with it crept in.
As parents and educators, our group has a keen understanding of how little people function and develop. And as brilliant a creation as Jack's speech and other cognitive patterns are, they represented some really unbelievable leaps and unevenness to us as a group. Especially in the second half of the book. Won't say more about that for fear of spoiling it for you. But we agreed that those normal patterns of development would not necessarily apply here given the isolated circumstances, but Jack does have a well-spoken parent, a television (eeek, can't believe I just wrote that), and displays highly elevated vocabulary and syntax at some times but not at others. His level of comprehension begins to seem assigned by the narrative need of the moment in a few spots.
What we loved was what the book suggested about the parent-child bond. The womb-like nature of their captivity, the natural way their relationship evolves outside of societal constraints (the breast feeding issue). The ways in which Ma (never assigned another name as this is all from Jack's point of view) structured their days to provide the most enriching environment possible under the circumstances. And a few other things from the second half of the novel which I will hold back on.
And as we talk through all of these points of the novel, the thing a few of us noticed is that the conversation constantly turned to the "real" rather than the fictional nature of the work. Donoghue as author succeeds in becoming completely invisible. We only heard Jack. We attached ourselves to the story as if it were actually ripped from today's headlines and not simply inspired by them. And perhaps this explains some of the huge success of the work. The success that has left the author herself a little surprised to find her book leaping off shelves at Wal-Mart.
So here is the final point on which we stalled. A few of us felt really conflicted about the great appreciation we felt for the author's talents at structuring this "fictional reality" at the same time we saw the narrative angle as "gimmicky" and the ending as irritatingly "cheap" and "pat." A book that obviously has more to say about motherhood, patriarchal culture, organized faith and foundational myths and miracles than is being immediately accessed comes across as underplayed by the author at the same time we admire her restraint in not bashing us over the head with a highly derivative social agenda or a distanced, intellectualized assessment of the various prisons life threatens.
So we all enjoyed it, two of us out of thirteen loved it. And it provided for a great conversation. But it did not seem "best of the year" material to the majority of us. For reasons that even we do not fully understand.