Thursday, March 28, 2013


by Emma Donoghue

RoomJesus Christ on a popsicle stick, i can't believe i have to read this! argh. my colleague Michael (hopefully not a GR member) loaned this to me; clearly he knows that i am a "reader". but just as clearly he also does not get that i like my books to have at least an edge of un-reality to them. you know, fantasy. horror. science fiction. historical fiction. and if not that, then just something, anything that moves them away from mainstream depictions of the modern real world. now Room looks like a snapshot of life right from the news. or right from my place of work! good grief, i deal with depressing enough stuff already goddamnit! reading the back cover description was like reading the label of a bottle of poison - i do not want to drink this.

it took me over two weeks to finish the first half. i finished the second half during an afternoon and part of an evening. an amazing novel and a very emotional experience. i think i'll save writing a review for a little bit and let it sink in for a while.

it's hard for me to define exactly why the first half of the novel was so hard to get through. at first i convinced myself that the child's perspective was just too "hearbreakingly poignant", and i am not the kind of person who is enthusiastic about reading works of heartbreaking poignance. but that is patently false; i love those kinds of books although i would never admit it openly. well, i'd say it in a GR review, but i would never say that out loud, if that makes sense. perhaps i'm a hypocrite that way. so then i convinced myself that there was just something wrong with the narrator's voice, something off, he just seemed - at different points - to be either too precocious or too simple for a child his age. i compared him a lot to my nephews, and it didn't gel - his thought process did not parallel their thought process. but then i thought about this kid's situation, the extreme sort of home-schooling he received, the protective wall that his amazing mom built for him, the way he interpreted the world...and it made sense, a whole lot of sense. his voice turned out to be a very real one for me, at least based upon my understanding of his young life.

and so i realized that the reason i was avoiding coming back to Room's first half was more basic, more simple. it made me want to cry, all the time. perhaps i'm too soft, maybe i just have too thin a skin. it's not like i have any illusions about kids - they are not saints to me, nor are they just tiny adults. i'm comfortable around children and i prefer them to many adults i've met, but i don't idealize them either. however i do have a big natural urge to protect them. i'm not sure where that comes from; i don't think it's based on genetics or upbringing. and so it was just really hard to return again and again to a novel that had as its central situation the kind of thing that i try actively to never contemplate. as in, i'll turn the channel or put down the paper if i come across a story like this one. to be honest, each time i read a few lines of the first half, my eyes would well up a little, that shortness of breath thing happened - and often in public, on the bus, at a coffeeshop, reading at a lunch spot. the private world of this novel became a public experience to me. i avoided this book at first because i do not like to appear weak - to the world around me, or to myself.

i told the guy who loaned me the book about my issues and was given some advice: just stick with it, it will open up and it will be beautiful. and so i did. and the book did. it was good advice.

the first half of the book was beautiful as well. wonderfully written. but thank God, the second half really did open up. it was like taking a breath of wonderful, clean air, somewhere in nature, away from the city. the humor remained but it was transformed into something wry, something that was still poignant but with a sheen of sardonic humor that i appreciated (and, truth be told, perhaps had a level of distance to it that i rather lazily connected to as well). the anger i felt in the first half towards Old Nick was inchoate - the kind of blind rage that i feel towards anyone who'd harm a child. the anger i felt in the second half was of a kind that is more comfortable, more familiar - towards the media, towards pop psychology, towards various institutions and the like. the second half had lessons to be learned - lessons about perception and isolation and materialism and the family bond and the bond between mother & son, protector & protected. the simple fact of "lessons to be learned" made the second half so much easier to read, it made the narrative positively propulsive in my desire to learn what was going to happen next. the horribly (and needfully) static nature of the book's first half was replaced by an emotional dynamism that really grabbed me. again, this is not a critique of the first half, which i think was perfectly written. instead, it is a critique of my own ability to deal with challenging, terrifying situations involving kids - since i couldn't do anything to stop or even hurt Old Nick, i wanted only to look away. and so the second half turned out to be more of a familiar road, with familiar pleasures. the first half of the book was horribly unique and my mind balked. the second half eased me back into a world i could deal with, respond to, and not shut down. at the end of the second half, the end of the novel itself, i read those last few sentences over and again, closed the book, and cried.

such a relief! it's funny to think of all the tears i had saved up.

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