Everyone else who has read Emma Donoghue’s newest novel, Room seems to love it – including the judges for the Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize (for best Canadian novel), and the Commonwealth Fiction Prize (Canada & Carribbean Region), all of which she won won handily. Perhaps this is because her story of kidnapping, forceable confinement and rape, told through the eyes of the five-year-old child of the oppressor and the victim, is not only gripping (as one would expect from a novel about such a taboo subject) but is also quite elegantly and sensitively told. Donoghue is a seasoned author, having already published several works of fiction as well as many academic publications. Room is clearly a cut above your typical mass-produced, hyped-up, page-turner type of novel. Donoghue’s writing is undeniably literary, well-composed, intelligent and thoughtful. Her prose style isn’t as bare bones as, say Cormac McCarthy (think: The Road) but there isn’t a lot of excess or ornamentation in her writing.
But despite all of this, I have to confess I wasn’t overly crazy about Room. I initially gave it two stars on Good Reads, but then thought that in all fairness it should get three if only for it’s entertainment value – it was at least engaging enough for me to finish in less than a week (not something that can be said for Annie Proulx’s Postcards, which took me about 6 months to finish). So why didn’t I like it? Yes, I found the book highly interesting, original and well-written. But the truth is, it’s not something I am likely to read again or put in a top 10 list. I certainly don’t think, like John Boyne (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas), that it is “one of the most profoundly affecting books I’ve read in a long time” nor do I completely share Michael Cunningham’s (The Hours) opinion that it is “potent, darkly beautiful, and revelatory.” I thought it was entertaining and better written than the majority of contemporary novels I’ve read this year, but that is about it. For me, the primary problem was the portrayal of the central characters. Try as I might, I just couldn’t relate Ma and Jack. Obviously, their situation is intended to shock and horrify the reader (which it does) but I personally felt them to be very distant from me at best and irritating at worst.
I must confess Jack really irked me at times! I know I am intended to feel sorry for him, but I kind of think he’s a brat. The five-year-old voice get a bit tiresome as the novel progresses. It’s an original way to approach the story at first, but after a while, one gets a bit tired of hearing the world described through the eyes of a child. The adult character Ma doesn’t provide much relief. I felt that she victimizes herself and Jack to the extreme and expects sympathy from not only her peers, rescuers and support systems, but also the reader. It’s difficult to feel badly for someone who expects you to feel badly for them! Furthermore, I was not entirely moved by the relationship between mother and son. Author Anne Giardini comments that the horror in Room is “leavened by one of the most convincing portrayals of love [she] has come across in literature or in the outside world.” I didn’t find it especially convincing. I felt they both acted the way any other mother and child probably would if they happened to find themselves in the same unfortunate circumstances.
You will certainly not be bored if you pick up Room but don’t expect to be blown away either. Despite an original plot and and unique approach to a difficult theme, the character just weren’t developed enough for me to feel strongly attached to them. It’s not that they are flat – they are fairly well developed – they’re just irritating. I don’t know about you, but it’s impossible for me to fall in love with a book without also falling loving the character, or even loving to hate them. Ideally though, strong literary characters should evoke feelings other than intense irritation – unless that’s the primary emotion the author is going for, which I don’t think is the case in Room.