19 October 2012
Some books shouldn’t have their story revealed. It’s better to let the story slowly emerge, and for the reader to puzzle ou what is happening. A blurb about this book says: “Jack is five. He lives with his Ma. They live in a single, locked room. They don’t have the key. Jack and Ma are prisoners.” There is a slow realisation of what Jack’s reality is. Emma Donoghue doesn’t spell things out in a crude way, she lays out the barest hints, and lets you realise, sometimes after quite a time. And then the penny drops, and even then you are left wondering why things are like that.
Many of the reviewers have said that they couldn’t put the book down. I was the same, and I shall remember this book for a long time.
The consistency of Jack’s voice is impressive. It would be all too easy to let him say things that a child, even a very clever child, wouldn’t say. He’s a clever child, but you never forget that he’s five, and you never think ‘a child wouldn’t say that’.
Not using the definitive article but with an initial capital letter is also a clever touch. It’s Room, Wardrobe, Bed, and this emphasizes that Jack knows that the room that he is in is unique, floating in space. What Donoghue calls, in her acknowledgements, the practicalities of Room are well thought out, and she credits this to the unnerving insights of her brother-in-law. But it’s good. You never feel, oh No, it couldn’t be like this.
Some things aren’t even hinted at: what is Ma’s name, for example, her other name, as Jack puts it. Keeping this from us is a master touch: it underlines the alienation. Not learning anything very much about Old Nick is good. He’s one-dimensional, but that’s the author’s decision, and it reminds you that every character in a novel doesn’t have to be a fully-realised, rounded figure. In fact, to have created a real character for Old Nick would have made it a very different story, as Donoghue has said..
It’s also remarkable that the second part of the book, Outside (again a capital letter without the article), is even better than the account of their imprisonment. The difficulties in adjustment to a life outside are brilliantly imagined and described in an un-melodramatic way. The account of the television interview is horrendous, but it’s entirely believable. I had some doubts, at first, about Ma’s attempted suicide, but as the book went on I came to accept it as possible. My only slight reservation was that things were perhaps wrapped up a bit too easily in the end, Jack cutting his own pigtail off, and I wondered if Ma and Jack being separated was a device for ending the breastfeeding. But something like this had to happen. For his own mental health Jack has to conform a little to the public image of a boy, and weaning is a step on the way to independence.
Apparently some editions of this book had the words ‘Not the End’ on the last page, and some reviewers interpreted this as an indication that there was to be a sequel. My edition didn’t have those words, but I don’t think they would have meant that anyway. More likely that Ma and Jack faced further challenges.
This book restores some of my faith in the book prize business. The Man Booker prize list for 2011 was rubbish. Pigeon English was hopeless, the worst book I’ve ever read, and The Sister’s Brothers was weird, and never moved me. Julian Barnes deserved to win, and excluding Alan Hollinghurst from the short list was a mistake, although I don’t personally like his books. And I have a soft spot for Jane Rogers, whose novel The Testament of Jessie Lamb was heartbreaking, but didn’t get into the short list. I think Emma Donoghue could have won the prize if there had been a different panel.
I was left thinking about this book for a long time, and I still am, wondering how Ma and Jack got on.