Reading 2011: Emma Donoghue - Room

For years I used to live inside my head. I think it is an occupational hazard if you are within academia: you get used to silently arguing with yourself; to constantly question and explore your own thoughts. My head was (and is) the biggest place I have ever lived. I do not think of myself as an author, but I do think of myself as a writer. My words and thoughts are the most tangible things I possess. Words matter. And I think that is why Emma Donoghue's Room makes me so damn angry.

A brief synopsis: Room is the story of a young girl who is kidnapped by a loner and kept in a tiny room in his back-garden. She gives birth to a boy and raises him within the small room where they are at the mercy of the loner. The story echoes recent real-life crime cases - Josef Fritzl and his daughter, Natascha Kampusch, and Jaycee Lee Dugard - but is a work of fiction detailing life within confinement and subsequent events. Room has been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and has won many major literary awards.

The subject matter is not the problem. Although it would be easy to step into "misery literature" territory, Room sidesteps this neatly by leaving out most of the actual abuse. Indeed, Donoghue is not preoccupied by the grisly details (which may disappoint some readers, I am sure) but instead she wants to explore how human beings respond to extraordinary situations and to each other. She employs the five-year-old boy, Jack, as the narrator of the story - undoubtedly to defamiliarise to an already unreal scenario.

And Jack as the narrator is the problem with Room.

I can understand the lure of using Jack as the narrator as it avoids a lot of sticky situations for Donoghue as a writer (as discussed above) but Jack the five-year-old narrator is wildly inconsistent. He uses abstract concepts like "sarcasm" in context and says "hippopotami" with correct declension - but Donoghue also has him saying "I finded him" and "I knowed." So, the five year old kid can wield correct Greek grammar, but not use standard English strong verbs?

Russian literary critics used to differ between fabula and syuzhet: fabula is what happens; syuzhet is how it is told. Emma Donoghue has a firm grasp on the fabula part of her story, but Jack-as-narrator is a structural (syuzhet) problem that messes up Room in a very big way. It is not just that his language usage is woefully all-over-the-place but the pacing is off, any characterisation is by necessity very flat, and the internal logic has extremely big flaws.

And, so yes, reading Room made me angry.

I thought it was awful.

I have been reading a lot lately, but I don't write much about the books I read for some reason. As always, feel free to catch up with my reads on GoodReads - the widget is to the right.