Aimée Bender, ‘Separation Anxiety’, review of Room by Emma Donoghue,
in The New York Times (16 Sept. 2010), Sunday Book Review.

[ Bibliographical note: Room (NY: Little, Brown & Company 2010), 321pp., $24.99 - review with photo-port. available online -accessed 10.02.2011.]

Emma Donoghue’s remarkable new novel, Room, is built on two intense constraints: the limited point of view of the narrator, a 5-year-old boy named Jack; and the confines of Jack’s physical world, an 11-by-11-foot room where he lives with his mother. We enter the book strongly planted within these restrictions. We know only what Jack knows, and the drama is immediate, as is our sense of disorientation over why these characters are in this place. Jack seems happily ensconced in a routine that is deeply secure, in a setting where he can see his mother all day, at any moment. She has created a structured, lively regimen for him, including exercise, singing and reading. The main objects in the room are given capital letters - Rug, Bed, Wall - a wonderful choice, because to Jack, they are named beings. In a world where the only other companion is his mother, Bed is his friend as much as anything else. Jack, in this way, is a heightened version of a regular kid, bringing boundless wonder and meaning to his every pursuit.

Donoghue navigates beautifully around these limitations. Jack’s voice is one of the pure triumphs of the novel: in him, she has invented a child narrator who is one of the most engaging in years - his voice so pervasive I could hear him chatting away during the day when I wasn’t reading the book. Donoghue rearranges language to evoke the sweetness of a child’s learning without making him coy or overly darling; Jack is lovable simply because he is lovable. Through dialogue and smartly crafted hints of eavesdropping, Donoghue fills us in on Jack’s world without heavy hands or clunky exposition. The reader learns as Jack learns, and often we learn more than he can yet grasp, but as with most books narrated by children, the gap between his understanding and ours is a territory of emotional power.

Donoghue’s ingenuity also soars as she animates the novel’s physical space through her characters’ rituals: they run around a homemade track; watch TV, but not too much, because “it rots our brains”; string eggshells together with a needle to make a kind of snake. Toys and books are treated like gold. A lollipop is a revelation.

Although I hate to reveal plot points, some are necessary to discuss the book, and early on, the story reveals that Room is actually a prison, with a villain holding the key, and that Ma (as Jack calls his mother) is being kept against her will. Fierce claustrophobia sets in - what had seemed an odd mother-child monastery is now Rapunzel’s tower or Anne Frank’s annex or a story from the news about a stolen child living in a hidden compound. Jack, interestingly, does not feel trapped; that the two live in Room against his mother’s will is not something the son knows right away, and this contrast creates the major fissures and complexities in the book: Room is both a jail and a haven.

Once it is known that Ma doesn’t want to be there, the careful, painstakingly constructed framework of the characters’ days takes on a new tenor. That Ma can engage and interest a lively, bright boy while enduring the despair of their situation turns her into a heroic figure. When, later in the book, someone mentions how “zeitgeisty” it is, in our thing-ridden times, to make do on so little, Ma is horrified, and we are horrified, yet we are riveted by her manner of coping - in the same way we’re riveted by Anne Frank’s bravery - and amazed by her capacity for adaptation.

Jack doesn’t need to adapt; this is his norm. Room functions like a big womb, the space in many ways a true extension of a mother’s body, a limited area of total closeness and care. It is a child’s heaven for a time and, were he to grow older there, would be his nightmare. At 5, Jack is somewhat delayed developmentally, still living wholly in the unity he feels with his mother. “Maybe I’m a human,” he thinks, “but I’m a me-and-Ma as well.”

Which brings up the one part I struggled with a bit. Very early on, we see that Ma breast-feeds her son. The book opens on his birthday, and she tries, halfheartedly, to wean him, but he loves this intimate connection to his mother’s body as much as he loves all the walls and objects and routines of Room. There’s a flicker of unease in the reader here - and it’s a good and interesting flicker. Room is a sanctuary for Jack, but where are the lines, the boundaries between mother and son? When does security go too far?

Eventually the book takes a turn; I will note only that more characters enter, and that the world extends beyond its original setting. The development is thrilling and at moments palm-sweatingly harrowing. But that darker flicker of unease around the breast-feeding grows smaller. When Ma is questioned about it a couple of times, she turns on her interrogators with anger. She’s a sympathetic figure, and her choices, in her situation, are believable, even understandable, but by shaming the questioners, Donoghue also cuts off a reader who may have similar wonderings. I trusted and valued that flicker of unease, and I wanted to feel it play out more, to see Donoghue go deeper into the mucky, messy territory of growth. When Ma takes an action that ends up resolving some of these questions, I found her choice surprising, even puzzling; it just didn’t quite address this issue, which was not about the breast-feeding concretely, but more about breast-feeding as an effective symbol for that initial, primal bond between mother and child, a bond that has to evolve over time. The internal claustrophobia, the blurry and often complicated area between closeness and autonomy, is acknowledged but moved through quickly, in favor of managing the joys and terrors of the outside world.

There’s a lot to manage - the external, vivid, social world is a huge and gratifying resource here, and Jack’s eyes remake the familiar. It is invigorating, watching him learn, and the way Donoghue reveals the consequences of Room through her attention to detail is tremendous. But in a world where bed is Bed and outside is Outside, I thought anxiety might be Anxiety, and somewhat harder to resolve. Part of Jack’s appeal is that heightened kidness in him, and if his wonder is 10 times larger, so might have been the resolutions of his internal struggles and regressions.

But these are objections based on the very high standards set by the beauty of the book. On the whole, Donoghue goes the distance with Room, and she brings her story to a powerful close that feels exactly right. This is a truly memorable novel, one that can be read through myriad lenses - psychological, sociological, political. It presents an utterly unique way to talk about love, all the while giving us a fresh, expansive eye on the world in which we live.

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