Friday, December 3, 2010

Solitary confinement.

After you read this book, you will want to floss.

Emma Donoghue's Room takes on a subject that has been attempted by many other authors (most recently, Chevy Stevens' Still Missing) but does it with much more authenticity, ingenuity, and dexterity than most.

Room is written from the point of view of Jack, a five-year-old boy who has lived his entire life in the soundproof cell in the backyard of the man who abducted his mother seven years ago. Kidnapped from a parking garage at nineteen, his mother is now twenty-six, and has created a fascinating and surprisingly safe world for Jack, the son of her captor, within their prison. They have a TV, but Jack and his mother spend most of their day reading and singing to one another and making up games with the objects in their cell, who are nearly realized characters. The minuteness of their environment makes each different piece - a plant, a melted plastic spoon - take on weighty significance. Even discarded egg shells are turned into toys. (Somewhere, a yuppie parent is salivating over the idea of an environment in which their child can be completely controlled and kept away from all polluting influences.)

I generally dislike books that are written from the point of view of a child narrator. They tend to be inauthentic, cloying, or infuriating. But Donoghue's Jack is shockingly real, and Donoghue does a remarkable job at capturing the way children can grasp complicated topics with remarkable ease while getting thoroughly confused by minutiae. The relationship between Jack and his mother is surprisingly healthy and nuturing although, by necessity, claustrophobic, although only she is aware that their continued survival is dependent upon the man who keeps them imprisoned and who can withhold things like heat and food at will.

I don't want to ruin the novel for anyone who hasn't yet read it, but I will say that, although many reviewers claim every novel they read makes their heart race, Room really delivers during the harrowing scene in the middle of the book. But what is more heartbreaking is the severing process that Jack and his mother undergo after they're freed. I read somewhere that infants conceive of their mothers as extensions of themselves, and that for a toddler, watching its mother leave is sort of like watching part of itself leave, the part that it knows it can depend on to keep it alive - then imagine a five year old trying to comprehend this idea.

By focusing on Jack and his mother and scarcely mentioning their captor, Donoghue avoids the sensationalism and exploitativeness of other novels that cover the same topic. The only part that rang false, at least for me, were the competent police officers who find Jack's mother. Elizabeth Smart's captor was visited by police at least twice who didn't seem to think that the presence of two random little girls in the backyard of a convicted sex offender was anything to be worried about - the idea that the officers in Donoghue's Room would 1) listen to the incoherent child and 2) actually be able to act on his instructions just seems overly optimistic. In Belgium, Marc Dutroux kidnapped six girls and starved several of them. His house was searched twice by police for charges relating to a car theft ring, and the police even heard the girls screaming and didn't do anything. Dutroux's mother even warned the police twice, and Dutroux's conversation with an undercover police officer made it blatantly obvious that he was the most likely suspect in the disappearance of the girls. In fact, the Belgian police were so sloppy that Dutroux managed to escape while being transferred.

It seems more likely that the police who pick Jack up would turn him back over to his captor with the admonishment to be a good boy.

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