Yesterday afternoon, I finished reading Room, by Emma Donoghue. I started it the previous day around noon, which should give you an idea of how good this book was. In my previous post, I said that The Lifeboat was not one of those books that I couldn’t put down; Room, on the other hand, is one of those books. It is one of those stories that grabs hold of you and pulls you in, and then when someone (like your husband, for instance) tries to ask you a question or tell you something, you find yourself rather annoyed at the interruption, and completely disoriented to be thrown back into reality in that way.
I have read other books that were narrated by a character who is really too young to have written a book, but this one was utterly convincing. There was no intentional suspension of disbelief necessary to get absorbed in this book, because the narration was so natural, so completely believable. I was very impressed. I understood why Jack, the five-year-old narrator, did and said everything he did, because his thoughts were so perfectly expressed. If a child of that age dictated a story to an accomplished adult writer, this is how it would read. I was unsure if I would like that technique, but it made every moment, every object so poignant, so impregnated with meaning. It was fascinating and absorbing.
Room is outstanding. It is also, however, remarkably sad and very painful to read. Normally, I don’t seek out or enjoy fiction that is about terrible things happening to undeserving people. I often say that there is enough tragedy and horror in the world that we don’t need to add to it by creating more misery through storytelling. I’m not exactly sure why this was different. Perhaps some sad stories need to be told to shed illumination on certain aspects of human nature, parables that help to serve as cautionary tales, or show us how to act. I’m having a difficult time explaining why a book that contains such sadness could be useful and worthwhile.
I believe a partial explanation is that such a story shows how ordinary people can surmount terrible circumstances, through sheer force of will. This book introduces a young woman who has been dealt a terrible hand, but turns it into the best possible version of the situation, spurred on only by her love for her son. While heartbreaking, it was a beautiful thing. Even though it was fiction, it was inspiring and touching to see her create, out of her own hell, a remarkably normal and healthy world for her child. She makes mistakes and takes frightening risks, but they are all part of the monumental effort to protect her son. It is not only the mother’s actions that embody this triumph-over-tragedy theme, for we also see the boy exhibit astonishing courage – not just once, but over and over again as he tries to make sense of his life and adjust to unfathomable changes in it.
I cried through a lot of this book, I have to confess. I really must stress how deeply sad this book is, yet it is still so expertly crafted and ultimately satisfying that I have to recommend it. I was drawn so thoroughly into the world of Room that it seemed I was living the story along with Ma and Jack. They seemed to be people that I knew. Ms. Donoghue was successful at making me feel that I was Jack throughout the book. I felt his emotions as closely as my own.
I hope this is not the author’s only book, but then again, if she has written others, I worry that they cannot possibly be as amazing as this one. Not many writers can replicate an accomplishment like this story, and I have often been disappointed by books that were good by any standard, unless held up to a truly excellent book by the same author. In those cases, the writing style is similar, but it feels hollow if it isn’t as earth-shattering as the first book of theirs that you read. I worry about that with Emma Donoghue, because Room has such a unique perspective and plot.
I feel that I should say, at the risk of perhaps spoiling a little of the suspense in the novel, that this book is unlikely to leave readers with a long-lasting sense of emotional upset. The premise of the book is awful, and there is unpleasantness along the way, but there are no disturbing scenes that you cannot get out of your head afterward. I cannot be completely confident in this assertion, since I have no children, but I do not think that this is a book that a parent of a small child should not read. It seems that the author is kind enough to refrain from making anything happen that a parent would not be able to recover from reading about.
My opinion is that the author is so surprisingly successful at narrating a story from the perspective of a five-year-old, that the book truly is worth wading through all the unhappiness. It was refreshing and novel, and at times it was honestly funny, particularly those depictions of a child’s uncensored reactions to the world and its inhabitants. I really am quite glad that I read this. Room is one of those rare contemporary novels that I feel comfortable calling a work of art.