Friday 9 December 2016

Review: Room by Emma Donoghue

(Picador, £12.99)

Published 24/07/2010 | 05:00

We don't have to try to imagine unimaginable horror. Whatever the depravity, we can depend that humans have already done the imagining for us.

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Abduction, rape and imprisonment in one rudimentary room became too familiar last year when news broke of Californian Jaycee Lee Dugard's release from captivity after 18 years. During that time she bore her abductor two children.

And this news emerged only months after Austrian Josef Fritzl was convicted of imprisoning his daughter in a cellar for years and having children with her.

The universe of Donoghue's docu-novel is a garden shed that is home to five-year-old Jack, the storyteller, and his devoted Ma, abducted at 18, and who is now fading in and out of black depression. There's a tyrannical occasional visitor, Old Nick, on whom the pair depend for food, light and heat -- for life itself. He calls usually when Jack is tucked into his bed in the wardrobe.

In no time, this room becomes a hellish world for the reader, as well as for Jack and Ma. Life revolves around finding ways of making the days pass. You play games; word games, mostly. You exercise. Today. Again tomorrow. And tomorrow, like yesterday.

This is Beckett for beginners, seen through the eyes of a child with no expectation of anything else. It takes a consummate writer to make us marvel at the mundane. Beckett's Waiting for Godot did it, of course. So did Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, set in a 1950s Siberian labour camp.

Emma Donoghue does it so spectacularly that we are taken by surprise when, in the middle of the novel, resourceful Ma's escape plans swing into action.

Credulity is stretched as Jack, unaided, manages to pull off the escape by following Ma's masterplan. But incredulity did not prevent me from turning the pages.

The reader hurries on partly because Jack is so masterful a creation. Like John Boyne's Bruno in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, he knows more than he understands. And the dramatic irony heightens the poignancy of the tale as it progresses into the third section, which deals with life after abduction. Predictably, the released captives do not live happily ever after.

Bewildered Jack dutifully reports on life 'outside': or rather, on life in the limbo of a clinic, where 'dedicated professionals' give Ma and Jack endless check-ups. (Jack thinks a check-up might be a toy, and that a pelvic exam might have to do with adding and subtracting.) Meanwhile, the media manipulate the experience into copy: 'the despot's victims,' one television bulletin goes, 'appear to be in a borderline catatonic state after the long nightmare of their incarceration'.

Jack isn't an idiot savant or feral, but he doesn't fit accepted moulds of boyhood. Since he does not share the assumptions that help make sense of the world, a chasm yawns between him and 'Outside'.

There had seemed no reason for his mother to stop breast-feeding him; now that leads to appalled reaction. His long braided hair and fondness for the girly Dora the Explorer don't help him integrate into the brave new world of gendered childhood; his grandfather can hardly tolerate his presence because he finds the circumstances of his conception so repulsive.

A day spent with his uncle and cousin would be hilarious were it not for the chaos and panic he creates everywhere.

Donoghue's seventh novel may attract the kind of disapproval that Edna O'Brien experienced when she based In the Forest on a tragic triple murder in County Clare while local wounds were still raw.

Indeed, although she says her story is "pure fiction", her afterword acknowledges the testimonies of previous abductees. However, this is a book that has resilience and heroism writ large in a small unsentimental space.

It is as much about empathising with suffering at the extreme of the spectrum as about society's expectations. Donoghue's great strength -- apart from her storytelling gift -- is her emotional intelligence. We get just enough information to feel uncomfortable -- and therefore, to question our assumptions about how family life ought to be; and to know that life will always be an unequal struggle.

Mary Shine Thompson is dean at St Patrick's College Drumcondra, a college of Dublin City University

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