Monday, December 26, 2011

Guest Review: Room by Emma Donoghue

Guest Review by Rachel Hunt Steenblik

Rachel is a philosopher, librarian, and reader. She currently lives in Vienna, Austria with her husband. He is studying architecture. She is studying Kierkegaard, and fine breads and cheeses.

Title: Room by Emma Donoghue

Published: 2010

It's about: A small boy, and his mother. The child Jack, grows up in a small, 11x11 room, not knowing the outside world except through television. Because of this, he thinks the outside is something made up, like Muppets, or Sesame Street. For Jack, only the room is real. Only his mother, and her love. They do everything together inside that room: P.E., read, eat, play, sleep, and so forth. Everything in the room has a name. "Rug," "Door," "Table," etc. Every time of the day has an activity. There is an order and a purpose. They laugh a lot, and sometimes they scream in a screaming game. Which one can scream the loudest? Who can get closest to the single, ceiling window? They stand on the table. They try. They only receive one visitor, but young Jack is not allowed to be present. He must hide, tucked away in "Wardrobe," only to come out when the visitor is gone. Jack doesn't know exactly what happens during these visits, only that the man brings food, and sometimes special treats. Occasionally he hears things. He also knows that it can leave his mom different, tired, gone. Once his mom was gone for a whole day, even though she was there. Jack tried to take care of himself, counting the cereals. For the mother, things are different. The screaming game is not a game, but attempt at escape: the room is not home, but a prison. They are being locked up by her captor--her rapist. She has tried to create a safe space for her son. She has done the best that she knows how, with the limited circumstances she has. Jack is her hope, her constant survival. And so she hatches a plan.

I thought: Room was harrowing. And innocent. And sweet. It would have been wholly different if it had been told from the perspective of the mother. While that could have made a powerful story as well, I believe it was a good call on the part of the author. We were introduced to the room so sweetly and so simply, through the eyes of a child. He is a smart child, but a child nonetheless. So often we are left to conjecture what we know must be a sad tale, a sad beginning to the room. We make discoveries little by little. We feel for the mother. We feel for the boy--even though he is a happy and kind child--because we know that there is so much more. His life could be richer, fuller. We are scared when the mother dreams of escape, because we don't know what will happen. We are scared when they succeed, because of what does happen.

This was actually one of the most interesting parts for me, that the book didn't end there, at the usual fairy tale ending. There was no page that said that they would live "happily ever after." We are shown the after, and it is not always happy. But it wouldn't be, would it? Instead we watch Jack get sunburnt, because he has never seen the sun. (He must have been ghostly pale.) We watch newscasters interview the mother. We see criticism for the way she raised Jack (as if other's could understand). We see letters of support pour in (making her survival an act of heroism). We see her family changed. They thought she was dead. We see Jack want to return to "Room." It is his womb. His home--the only place he knows. How can we blame him?

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf. (Please. You will thank yourself, and me.)

Reading Recommendations: This book is meant for people who love honesty and hope both. It is a sad book, but it is also beautiful in that sadness. We are shown the worst and best of humanity. Those who read it will come out changed, perhaps a little more thoughtful, a little more able to embrace the whole of human experience, a little more able to affirm it.

Warnings: Some scenes/backstories of rape and violence.

Favorite excerpts: "When I was a little kid I thought like a little kid, but now I'm five I know everything."
"Ma's still nodding. 'You're the one who matters, though. Just you.' I shake my head till it's wobbling because there's no just me."
"'Goodbye, Room.' I wave up at Skylight. 'Say goodbye,' I tell Ma. 'Goodbye, Room.' Ma says it but on mute. I look back one more time. It's like a crater, a hole where something happened. Then we go out the door."
"In Room me and Ma had time for everything. I guess the time gets spread very thin like butter all over the world, the roads and houses and playgrounds and stores, so there's only a little smear of time on each place, then everyone has to hurry on to the next bit..."

What I'm reading next: Works of Love, by one Danish philosopher, Soren Aabye Kierkegaard.