People who’ve read what I’ve posted on this blog will, I’m sure, have the impression that I don’t read a lot of fiction. As I’ve said in other posts, it’s not because I don’t like it. It’s mostly a matter of having relatively little free time and a pile of non-fiction reading that is more or less compulsory. When I do tuck into fiction I mostly want it to be something not too depressing. So it probably came as a surprise to my co-workers when they discovered that I was reading Emma Donoghue’s Room.
Room tells the story of Jack, a five year old boy who along with his mother (Ma) has spent his entire life imprisoned in a small room by a man called Old Nick. Told from Jack’s perspective, Room tells of the last days of his and Ma’s captivity, of their escape and of their construction (in Ma’s case reconstruction) of human lives outside captivity. In the space of 350 or so pages it manages to be both one of the most devastating and also one of the most uplifting books that I have ever read.
I had gone to see the movie shortly after it was released last year. I spent most of the first 45 minutes curled up in my seat with head in my hands. Brie Larson won an Oscar for her portrayal of Ma and allow me to say that she richly deserved it. How she could get herself into the kind of space to play that character, to say those words and live those experiences, I have a hard time imagining. I could barely watch it. I had the most intense desire to find Old Nick and tune him up properly.
I felt this again as I read Donoghue’s spare and beautiful text, if perhaps less intensely. The book spends a lot of time with Jack’s internal monologue and his struggle to come to terms with the fact that there is an actually existing world outside the confines that he has known all his life. This is, perhaps, the biggest difference between the book and the film. The book gives one a much more intense appreciating for Jack’s doubts as to the reality of anything that exists outside the room.
But thinking about it later (and in the wake of seeing the rest of the film) I realized that this misses and important point. The true glory of this film and of the book, the thing that makes it beautiful and uplifting, is that it tells the story of both Jack and Ma reclaiming agency over their lives. Through years of captivity, Ma retained the fundamental human desire to liberate herself, and she formulated a plan to make it happen. Much of the latter part of the story centers on her difficulties, both in adapting to her newly recovered freedom, and coping with her guilt at having been imprisoned in the first place.
The fundamental point here is that it’s her that’s doing it. She has the will to survive and to protect he son as best she can. She plans her escape and makes it happen. She acts to reclaim the full measure of her humanity. Perhaps the hardest thing about reading this book for me was resisting the temptation to make myself the hero or the avenger.
I recommend this book. But I recommend that you get it from the library. It is an intense and challenging examination of the power of human beings to overcome trauma. It was well worth reading, but I simply cannot imagine anyone wanting to read it more than once.