Tuesday 16 January 2018

Review: Room by Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue's widely acclaimed 'Room' is a milestone in a dogged journey, says Joseph O'Connor

Joseph O'Connor

We need things to celebrate in Ireland at the moment, so let's take a moment to reflect on the wonderful achievement of Dublin-born author Emma Donoghue in making the shortlist for this year's Booker Prize.

Her widely acclaimed novel, Room, is already a bestseller in many countries. It has received rapturous reviews, and there will be many more to come. If she wins the Booker Prize, she will become only the second Irish woman to have done so. To see her on the shortlist is testimony to hard work and dedication, to the single minded belief in her writing.

Donoghue has been a gifted writer from the start of her career. Born in 1969, the youngest of eight children, she studied at UCD before gaining a PhD at Cambridge. Her first novel, Stir Fry, came in 1994 and it was clear that here was an Irish writer with new things to say. A lot of Irish novelists were first published in the Nineties, part of a cycle that happens in London publishing every few decades, but Donoghue's debut novel and then her next book, Hood, were almost unique in their outlooks. Quietly and determinedly, she continued to work, achieving something of a breakthrough with her 2000 historical novel Slammerkin, and extending an already growing reputation with her magnificent 2009 book, The Sealed Letter.

In 1998 she had moved to Canada, as another great Irish writer Brian Moore had done decades earlier. In time, she became a Canadian citizen. She lives in London, Ontario, with her partner and their two children, and she has written powerfully about the lack of bigotry towards gay relationships in Canada as compared to here in Ireland.

But perhaps the most impressive thing of the many impressive things about Emma Donoghue is the fact of her determination. I do not know if the Arts Council of Ireland ever offered her support, nor if such support was ever something she looked for. But she got on with the business of doing her work, through good times and bad, through dark days and bright, so that each of the books was better than the one that preceded it, and she slowly built the readership she deserved. A person of great grace and modesty, she has never, to my knowledge, uttered a word of unkind criticism about any other writer. The generosity and care that underpins her work is evident to anyone who knows her even slightly.

We're in tough times now, and all of us know it. But the continuing achievements of Irish people in the arts surely point to something interesting about the place. Every year, Irish authors appear on the Booker Prize shortlist, new musicians emerge and win audiences internationally. A serious book of poetry, such as Seamus Heaney's dazzling new collection, can top the bestseller list in Ireland. Of course, some nonsense is talked about all this. The arts will not save Ireland, and neither should they try. But the commitment and passion that Irish people show to them is part of what actually can.

And it isn't just the arts. There are other reasons to hope. Can anyone -- even the most agnostic person on the issue of sport -- have watched last Sunday's final between Kilkenny and Tipperary without feeling they were witnessing something special and thrilling? Pride in a homeplace. Pride in tradition. In doing the best you can possibly do, for no other reason than doing your best. There is nothing like the GAA anywhere in the world: an amateur sporting organisation inspiring such loyalty. Like the artist or the writer, the entrepreneur and the parent, the sportsperson is committed, for better or worse, animated only by hope.

We're having tough years. These have been tough weeks. There's a sense of autumnal sadness that whispers all around us, not helped by a leadership that continually fails to explain the map out of the mist and confusion. But there is reason to believe. We only need to see it. We are better than the news headlines. We glimpse it in our culture. As Ireland was forming itself, more than a hundred years ago, who would have been part of the noisy conversation about what kind of country we would be? A poet, a maker of stories, and someone who loved our games. Perhaps we've been looking in the wrong places for hope.

Joseph O'Connor's Wednesday Radio Diary is broadcast on RTE1's 'Drivetime With Mary Wilson'. www.josephoconnor author.com

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