Friday, March 11, 2011

Books Yay!: Room, by Emma Donohue

There are two levels upon which we can judge Room: on its success as a piece of black box theatre and as a story as a whole. There is a secondary criterion we can examine, that being the success of its linguistic device of childlike narrative. As a whole, Room succeeds, but it does not do so on the merits of its performance as black box theatre nor the interest of its linguistic device.

Room's first act takes place entirely in a small shed, here a mother and child are held captive by a mysterious, abusive man who kidnapped the mother when she was in her late teens. The mother has gone to great lengths not only to normalize the life she shares with her son, but to imbue their existence with the most health and education possible considering the inadequate resources with which she can work. After giving us a thorough view of their life, the subject of escape comes up in earnest.

The second act of the book follows the discussion of escape, and I think it would be best if I skipped telling you whether or not it amounts to anything. This is such a quick read that it's worth it to pick it up to find out what happens.

For me, the weakest part of Room was the first act. The account of every routine activity in their lives was important but poorly handled. It either should have been relayed in a shorter or in a more monotonous manner, to emphasize how stultifying the experience must have been. Instead, the author overplays her child narrator's curiosity, and as a result, it seems like the captive environment is little more than occasionally boring. The problem is not that the environment seems "too normal" - even with TV, it makes sense that a child raised in such an environment would take it as reasonably normal, particularly with a parent invested in maintaining that illusion - but rather that the child seems generally content and amused by toys and games that he has been playing for years.

Room really comes into its own in the second act, where circumstances allow a deeper commentary on interpersonal relationships and particularly the tension between the role of a woman as an individual and as a mother. Were the first act showed a woman seemingly in complete command of her environment (but for the obvious captivity; within the confines of the shed she has created a resourceful life moving towards the hope of escape), we now are able to see some of the obvious fear and confusion we knew from the outset MUST have existed, and see how that resonates through her life and that of her child. This is where Room changes from being an "all right" book to a good one.

Finally, there is the matter of the narration. This book is narrated by the child in the book, and many of the Amazon reviews I read whined about it being unrealistic. I don't think that this is fair or accurate. This is not a typical child. Instead, he is a child in a stressful situation with an adult, and this means that he is going to have a different knowledge base and different vocabulary than children who come up in traditional environments. The narration reveals a charming child who is smart but not always confident, and allows for a lot of exposition that might seem out of place otherwise. I think it's a successful choice, but I do think that the second part of the book could have been enhanced by a third person narration.

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