I began to want to read Emma Donoghue's The Room when I heard the book was nominated for the Mann Booker Prize and a description of the plot-design that made me think it was a modern gothic whereby a young woman and her baby are subjected to some form of live burial. I have read her Slammerkin, a book about a poverty-striken girl who goes into prostitution;
Life Mask ia another 18th century historical novelist based on an actress, at home theatricals, a lesbian diariest. I loved the first.
The descriptions I've read of The Room have emphasized the mother-son relationship, and don't discuss at all how the pair came to be in the room or really anything specific at all. The result is ignorance, misunderstanding, misrepresentation to some extent. The justification is probably that the critics "don't want to give anything away," an absurd counterproductive demand. No to tell anyone any details about the work lest we "spoil" it, prevents all discussion. So people come away either thinking this is a hard tough unpleasant book and don't buy it; or making money from the London stage.
Neither is so. It's not unpleasant to read nor is it about a mother-and-child primarily. This is not a story about a mother and child; that's the barrier, the surface, the outer surface. This is a classic gothic where (as Eve Sedgwick says) the story has a very hard time being told. Remember Wharton's "Mr Jones" and what effort it takes to get to Lady Juliana's ms, and how Mrs Clemm is murdered in retaliation and as a warning to Lady Jane. It takes hundreds of pages before we learn the story of Udolpho. The analogous story is Lolita. Imagine writing the story of "Old Nick's" point of view, and remember how many people end up blaming Lolita as a sexpot and the movie which does: Lolita is a story of abduction, rape, murder (of the girl's mother).. Also that in Five Full Days the abducted heroine is found drowned, carelessly murdered: you might say this is a police story like that turned inside out: instead of experiencing it from the point of view of the family who thinks the girl has died, we experience it from the point of view of the second child she is forced to carry and then give birth to as he reaches age 5..
The "trick" is that the story is told wholly from the standpoint of Jack, the five year old. It reminds me of To Kill a Mockingbird except Lee's child narrator, Scout, is older, 7-8; or it could be one of James's stories by a yet slightly older child or adolescent. There is a convention followed which is not really realistic: the child is super-innocent. Often the child doesn't "get" racism, or classicism, or as here the terrible events that have led up to when the book opens. My experience of even kindergarten children is they are alive to some of these things. They sense beating, sex, and also status and position very early.
Now at first it might be he has no experience. As everyone says the book opens with a mother and child locked in a room -- imprisoned. One reason I read it fast is I'm impatient with this kind of semi-soppy point of view carried on for a while. We really see a mother and child: her reading to him, playing, talking. It gradually emerges they are dependent on ond "old Nick" who comes at night and brings food and toys and whatever they need.
And we begin to hear dialogues between them the boy doesn't understand but we do. Donoghue has caught modern rough speech perfectly; it's uncanny the street feel of this talk. Old Nick is a mean hard guy, and our heroine dependent on him.
Gradually it emerges he gets his way with this girl by starving her or not turning up for a while. So it's a live burial with a kind of Genlis's Duchess of C********** story going on.
If this went on too long the reader would grow impatient and so as in To Kill a Mockingbird by about 1/3 in we get Atticus's voice and experience without Scout there, so what happens here is "MA" (another nameless heroine thus far) concocts a plan. The boy is ill, very ill and Nick won't do anything. So she has the boy pretend to die and Nick will take him and bury him in a rug outside the room. Here I experienced much anxiety lest they not manage their plan (they are starving as she is holding out against Old Nick) or Old Nick murder the boy or return him to the room.
Unrealistically the boy manages to enact the plan and (to make a long email shorter) and runs for his very life and the police are alerted to the hysterical scene that ensues. They rescue this boy.
What then happens is a police story told backwards. It reminds me of Five Full Days, also a police story turned into a woman's novel: They find the mother and we gather do arrest the man. Then what Donoghue does is show us how this pair of people are treated by the police, then the psychiatrist, then the hospital. Profound mistrust of Ma. A story emerges of an abduction of her in front of a school, and a seduction too. That's the ticket -- you see it's presented in a way the girl could be blamed. Details emerge here and there of a child born dead, of the birth of Jack, of his man's obdurate cruelty.
At the same details of the media circus occurring just outside the new door, and we have yet to see how the story is being presented as far as I got. I got to where "grandma," "grandpa" and ma's sibling with spouse and child have arrived on the scene. We see how the psychiatrists misunderstand what has happened. We see her father not want her son, dislike him as a symbol, that others suppose she had feelings she doesn't have and when they are convinced she was a victim, begin to treat her like a weak freak. She attempts to kill herself late in the novel.
I can't call it gothic because it has this peculiar child's atmosphere. I did read it skimmingly at moments because it made me impatient to get the next round of information. While Donoghue offers respectable precedents for child-narrators, and she did give herself a hard task by having a 5 year old, another reason for choosing a child narrator is how hard if not excruciatingly difficult it would be to put oneself in the mindset say of Mrs Frizl. Can you unearth what might be in a woman's mind who permitted her husband to do what he did? Nabokov "solved" his problem by making his narrator titillating as well as utterly sleazy and self-satisfied so he can't see what he's doing; also the horror is not multiple with others involved. Genlis has just the wife and husband know, there are no repeated rapes, pregnancies or dead babies. The child excuses her from having to imagine some of the mindsets of the people involved. Though child narrators are nothing new in fiction, a narrator who is only five is a challenge to pull off. Donoghue says she remembered classics she read in early life, like LP Hartley's The Go-Between, "a marvellous example where, even though it is narrated by the child, we pick up strong hints of what's going on between the adults that the child doesn't consciously know. "I knew I would be able to tell the mother's story through the boy in my book," she explains. "But when I told my partner I was going to write this, she said: 'Oh my God, can you produce enough meaning through a five-year-old?' I think you really can, if you choose a language that isn't going to irritate the reader too much."
So it's a story about a rape and abduction and imprisonment which could happen -- and has. Recently a story of parental cruelty to two young daughters emerged (Austria When I read it I thought of the shocking horror of years of abuse. But in an interview Donoghue said it was an even more horrifying case: The Josef Frizl one The respiratory problems reminds me of details of the still-born child. Jack is seriously ill with something and "Old Nick" won't hear of taking him to hospital. It probably is that the Frizl case is not the only one she was thinking of. There are six years between Life Mask (an 18th century historical novel, which I originally found a bit wooden -- too much information poured in) and Room and Inseparable: Desire between women in literature. I noticed in Vickery's Behind Closed Doors, a throw away line about in a couple of diaries (! - how many, madam) how belligerent (or some innocuous word like that) men would keep their wives' keys from them or try to lock or contain them in this or that part of the house.
More: When I've got to the end, I'll turn back and re-read. As with Austen's Emma (McEwan's Atonement) and many more, the second time one sees much more than the first.
"Ma Gone" is a phrase the boy (Jack) uses when the mother and he are still in the room. It means that she's in a catatonic depressive state. Suddenly he sees she's not there. She can't get herself to get up or do anything. I have never suffered this myself but have met people who do: a kind of paralysis. It seems to emerge from a personality highly sensitive, high-strung, low self-esteem and in need of flight (can't fight at all, can't endure inner struggle either, or anger).
Well now Jack and mother are in hospital and her relatives have come. They have a bad to mediocre reaction. Her father (lives in Australia, and not with mother) hates the sight of Jack. Regards her boy as a symbol. She is appalled by this. Her mother can't bear that she's still breast-feeding the boy. Why not, says ma? Her siblings also don't have the best reactions to all this.
So "Ma Gone." This time it means she tried to kill herself by taking a huge bottle of pills she found somewhere or she had with her. She almost dies but Jack is told she is coming back. He is now home with his "grandma" who is feeding him piazza and working hard to make him "like" a conventional 5 year old.
In fact what we are seeing here (I suggest) is that in some ways Ma liked it in the Room. She never tried to kill herself that we know of then. One of the reasons Old Nick could abduct her and she never fled or could seem to get out (remember Clary managed to flee Lovelace) is she's a depressive and also was alienated or estranged from her environment. Her mother had remarried (there's a stepfather who in fact has a better reaction to Jack than the father).
We also (I am) made to laugh at the psychiatrist who goes on about how she has to "socially reintegrate" herself. It's hilarious because somehow through Jack's transparent perspective we see this kind of talk is cant and she never really was "socially integrated" (whatever this means).
The novel explores why and how a woman is seduced into abuse, and how she might feel while being imprisoned - the socially unacceptable aspects of her feelings, such as she likes being alone with Jack and having him utterly dependent on her and not being able to do anything but care for him. It absolves her of choices she dislikes and can't do anyway.
I find that Donoghue herself is responsible for the misleading impression. She has said Room is a kind of allegory about parenthood and growing up. Mothers always want to protect their innocent children, as Elisabeth Fritzl did, and as Ma does in Room, from the sad truth that there is evil in the world. But children can't stay babies forever. "For an adult to be imprisoned is a terrible thing," says Donoghue. "But the odd thing about a child being raised in one room is that children start literally in a very small place, they start inside you, and they like being inside you, and when they come out, they cry--it's a shock. A baby is more than happy wrapped inside a sling and a toddler is more than happy sitting right beside you. It's only when they start to get a bit older that they want a bigger world. "So I thought, paradoxically I could imagine a child finding it pleasant enough to be inside one room with a mother who is always available to them, never saying: 'I'm going off to work now.' It's about that moment when a child hovers on the edge between wanting the small world with all its cosiness and intimacy, and wanting all the pleasures and dangers and excitements of the bigger world."
I think she's deflecting having too much attention to what she really is on about: horrifying inhumane treatment where we can see the girl might end up blamed for what happened to her, and is out of sympathy with the fatuous, distrustful and simply silly views of the people now surrounding her.
I do recommend this book, people. In Gwyneth Hughes and Anne Pivcevic's Five Full Days they too manage by flashbacks to go into the abducted (and by the end of the thing murdered) young woman and show her actual feelings and perspectives are not at all those enunciated by parents or social cant.