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Everyday Horror: Emma Donoghue’s Room

Emma Donoghue.  Room: A Novel. Little, Brown and Company: New York, 2010.

Disclaimer: Room is a novel that is impossible to discuss without revealing some plot points. Consider yourself warned.

We keep human horror in a box, and the media helps us do it. The stories haunt the public imagination long after we hear them: A woman held for 17 years in a small bedroom in Naples, Italy—her punishment for conceiving a child out of wedlock. Another daughter locked away by her father in a small Austrian village for 24 years, forced to submit to routine rapes and bearing seven children. “The worst crime in Austrian history,” everyone says. We nod, not thinking of the fact that one of the major genocides of the twentieth century happened not far from this crime. If we are lucky enough to have escaped firsthand encounters with mass atrocity, we find it difficult to understand. It seems too big. But these stories happened just last year or the year before. They happened to suburban people not completely unlike us. They stay with us.

We scour the news sources, believing that this will help us to understand. We read of the children from the Austrian “house of horrors,” never doubting this descriptor of their everyday existence. And the women who escape are said to have lived a “slave-like existence,” reduced now to empty shells of their former selves. They will never be able to be a part of the world again, not as we are. Such human horror is unimaginable. It happens not to everyday people, but to a chosen few, the ones who become our saints and our symbols of hope. Not people anymore, but objects defined by what they have endured to help us define ourselves.

Emma Donoghue’s extraordinary new novel, Room, shatters all of what we think we know about these horrors. It does this slowly and simply, before we have a chance to reflect upon any of it. Narrated by five-year old Jack, a child born of captivity and rape, Room shows us something undoubtedly true about the story that we have never considered: the everydayness in which it takes place.

At its best and most subversive, Room is a love story between a mother and her son. It happens over the course of a deftly-plotted narrative arc that alters the way in which we think about the horrors we encounter in the media. Jack recognizes nothing extraordinary about his life circumstances. His world consists of the unit he calls “me-and-Ma” and Room. Sometimes he must eat spoiled green beans because the captor does not provide adequate nutrition. Sometimes the camaraderie that he shares with Ma is marred by the sound of the man raping her while the son tries to “turn [himself] off” from within the wardrobe so as not to hear.

But these are not the things that define his experience of Room. He is more preoccupied, he says, with the many pursuits that keep him “busy” now that he is five. Jack relishes his mother’s lessons in reading and vocabulary, making sure that she teaches him a new word every time he encounters one on television. He enjoys gym class, when Ma stacks Room’s furniture so they can run laps around the room. Jack requires fewer steps to complete a lap now than he did last year—proud evidence of his growing body. He assists Ma’s escape efforts without realizing it when they “do Scream,” something that he experiences as a game, a release of aggression that he relishes much as any five year old boy might.

That the book has a sense of humor is another surprise. Jack makes the reader laugh out loud at his innocence. This is no mean feat, as the comical moments could easily drown in a sea of “Kids Say the Darnedest Things!” cuteness and cliché. It is thanks to Donoghue’s sharp eye for dialogue that the book’s sense of humor is both believable and fresh.

But surely this is no retelling of Life is Beautiful that makes every interaction part of a fantastic adventure, relegating atrocity to something that happens only outside the mind. Room is far grittier than Life is Beautiful, a visceral read that is firmly of this world. There is horror that lurks in the background, but Jack’s existence is by no means one of unremitting terror. There is routine and symmetry in it that comforts him. With Ma, Jack forges a two-person community that sustains them both. Like any child, he fights with Ma when he gets angry. He lashes out when his mother kills a spider in Room, and again when she expels a mouse, angry at losing his “only friends.”

Jack is perhaps the most engaging English-language child narrator since Kaye Gibbons’ Ellen Foster. He draws us quickly and seamlessly into his world. His characterization falters only once in a while. Indeed, there are times when the reader senses that Donoghue has over-researched her protagonist. When Jack’s world expands, his reactions to the outside world sometimes feel dishonest, as if drawn from a checklist in an early childhood development text rather than from an understanding of the character.  In such moments, Donoghue should step back and allow Jack to be Jack.

Donoghue also has a tendency to lose Jack when she engages in overt media critique. The genius of her criticism lies in a mother-son relationship that allows the two characters to live each day as real people rather than as media caricatures. But Donoghue delivers her vulnerable unit to the paparazzi—here called “vultures”—by stressing the inhumanity of it all rather than remaining committed to the characters. In one scene, Jack repeats a word for word academic roundtable conversation about his predicament that he hears on television. This is little more than an ill-advised ploy meant to illustrate the ridiculousness of academic jargon as a tool for dissecting human tragedy and distancing it from ourselves. The scene seems cheap and overdone, not to mention that this is not the moment to abandon the child development text, leaving a five year-old to narrate a conversation filled with jargon he has never heard. So it is in these moments—when Donoghue tries too hard to be subversive—that her narrative falls flat.

But these imperfections are easily forgiven considering the importance of what Donoghue does accomplish in Room. She masterfully deconstructs dominant cultural assumptions and media narratives about Ma and Jack. She does this not when she is most conscious of leaving the characters to fend for themselves against the media, but in the depth and richness of the mother-child relationship, the seemingly trivial nuances of everyday life and the innocence that persists at the core of a five year-old—even one who has endured what we believe to be unimaginable. The effect is to bridge the distance between the thing we call “horror” the thing we call “life”—and to render the unimaginable less so. In spite of its flaws, Room is an innovative and important novel. As engaging as it is powerful, this is the kind of work that blows apart entrenched cultural assumptions.


Kristin Rawls

Kristin Rawls blogs at Halogen TV. Her work can be found in The Christian Science Monitor, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere on the web. She often covers international politics here at Global Comment.