I have now read 3 of this year’s Booker shortlist and in all 3 there is a clarity of voice: Andrea Levy’s Jamaican feisty slave July, Damon Galgut’s melancholy author-protagonist-self and now Emma Donoghue’s 5-year old captive Jack. Such distinctive voices but I think Jack is going to haunt me more than the others.
(Please note I assume knowledge of the book in this review. If you haven’t read Room you may choose not to read any further as I will be including spoilers in my comments.)
Initially I found Jack’s voice so irritating: the naiveity of it, the dreadful grammar completely at odds with the vocabulary used. In fact, I put the book down after chapter 1 and left it for a couple of days. When I picked up chapter 2, that style persisted. Nevertheless I found myself hooked.
This was due to the subtle shifts in Jack’s reality. In chapter one, the 11-foot by 11-foot room in which Jack was born and has never left, is just one big playroom. His kidnapped Ma and his “friends” (Rug, Freezer, et al) all he needs. What he sees on the television isn’t real. The events in Room have no sinister undercurrents - not even when Jack has to hide in a cupboard during Old Nic’s visits. In chapter two his Ma, who is ironically beginning to worry about their safety, begins to enlighten him about their situation and he struggles to understand her “unlying”. From here on there is a plot momentum that simply keeps the pages whizzing until at the end of Chapter 3, when Jack and his Ma find themselves on the Outside.
The Outside, a desired for yet simultaneously threatening circumstance. Full of new boundaries such as individual privacy of which Jack has no understanding. There follows a series of incidents that demonstrate the steep learning curve that Jack must undertake if he is to adapt to the real world. It’s all the steeper because his Ma struggles, perhaps more than we expect. No longer the bastion of strength that she was in Room, the psychological picture of her that emerges is complex. Why did she not fight more for her freedom? What emerges is the picture of a vulnerable but amazingly resilent woman and mother. This is not a case of Stockholm Syndrome.
I found my picture of Jack changed too. The energy and playfulness that was constricted by Room was shown to be inadequate on the Outside. I certainly had no concept that he would emerge a small crooked figure. Details like this demonstrating the skill with which Donoghue presents differing views of reality. Jack’s record remains true to character, naive, on the surface of events throughout. Adult perceptions, scattered fragment by fragment throughout the second half of the novel, detail underlying dilemmas, emotional dependencies and psychological traumas. It’s these insights that tell the hidden story of the first half, add depth and make Room such a satisfying read.
I’m not at all surprised that Room was called in by a Booker judge, nor at its subsequent shortlisting. It’s uniqueness sets it apart and there’s plenty to fuel a second reading. For instance, I can see myself consciously tracking the incongruence of the simple narrative with the complexity of the underlying psychology. Yet while it was undoubtedly the most gripping of my 3 Booker readings to date, I wouldn’t champion its winning. There may be verisimilitude in Jack’s grammatical errors, but I want my Booker winner to set an good example, nay, to soar in its use of the English language. I also wouldn’t like a book with such a schmaltzy end sequence to win the ultimate accolade for literature.