Emma Donoghue’s seventh novel, Room, a shortlist candidate for the 2010 Booker Prize, created much fuss when it emerged that the author had used as inspiration for her book the case of Elisabeth Fritzl and her son Felix. (Felix Fritzl was five years old when he was released from the high-security cellar in which he had spent his entire life and the press made much of the ‘dungeon tot’ who was seeing grass and the sky for the first time.)
In an interview with the Guardian, Donoghue insists that the story of Elisabeth Fritzl, who was imprisoned for 24 years in a cellar by her rapist father, acted as a catalyst for her novel, rather than a template, and she is keen to emphasise that she has no interest in cashing in on people’s appetite for gruesome horror stories. “I knew that by sticking to the child’s-eye perspective there’d be nothing voyeuristic about it,” she says, and there’s a lot of truth to this. I shied away from reading Room for quite a while – not a Sunday afternoon read, I thought – but this is not necessarily so. As Donoghue attests to: “Ma has managed to keep Jack almost oblivious to the sexual side of things – the creaking bed makes him edgy, but lots of other things, green beans, for instance, make him edgier still.”
Indeed, Room is not all about the horrors of captivity. In many ways it is a tale that is largely about a mother’s resourcefulness. Though we see through Jack’s unknowing eyes moments where his mother is fit to burst with despair, Jack himself knows nothing but Room. This is starkly apparent in the way Jack doesn’t use articles. There is only Room, Plant, Bed, Meltedy spoon – as far as he knows there is only what exists in Room, except for the things you can find in the outer-space fantasy world that is ‘in TV’. It’s a fascinating investigation into the adaptability of children – Jack is brought up with a certain worldview and he knows it to be true in the way that we know the world to be true – it’s the place we live and we don’t know anything else.
As Donoghue says, “the real value of telling a freakish story is to illuminate the normal and universal…I would never have written Room if I hadn’t glimpsed a way to make the strangeness of Jack’s Room somehow universal – a sort of microcosm of our world… We all start in a very small place (the womb) and emerge into a bigger one, then again in childhood we gradually move from a narrow social setting to a bewilderingly complex, even international one. So Jack’s journey is everyone’s journey, just speeded up.”
As well her interest in the quasi-normality of Jack’s journey, Donoghue was keen to show the normality, in many ways, of the experience of his mother in bringing him up. In an interview with the Independent she says, “It may sound outrageous, but every parent I know has had moments of feeling as if they’ve been locked in a room with their toddler for years on end. Even 20 minutes of building towers of blocks can feel like a lifetime. I’m not saying that Ma’s experience is every mother’s experience, not at all…But there’s a psychological core that’s the same: the child needs you so much that you don’t fully own yourself anymore.”
Certainly I looked upon Ma with admiration. I don’t have children but I can well imagine that to only have a five-year-old for company would be trying. To be solely responsible for bringing up a happy, intelligent child within the confines of one locked room sounds like a heavy burden and yet Ma takes pains not to plonk Jack in front of the TV all day lest his brains turn to mush. Watching her read him the same couple of books over and over made me shudder and think ‘I would have given up’ but perhaps ‘giving up’ is harder than it sounds. Ma has days when she is ‘Gone’, according to Jack, where she just lies on the bed, barely moving and silent, but these pass and she throws herself back into her mammoth task – helping Jack make new toys out of scraps of rubbish, making him brush his teeth religiously and teaching him endless new words. With the days still coming at them, long and relentless, what else is there for either of them to do but carry on? They must make happiness out of what they have – each other.
Although I have nothing but praise for Donoghue’s superb, original and deeply moving book, I did have a couple of misgivings as I tore hungrily through it. Firstly, I wondered how the book would sustain itself over four hundred pages in a five-year-old’s narrative if its characters were to remain behind the locked door of Room. This worry – I shan’t say much more lest I ruin the book’s excellent heart-banging, adrenaline-pumping moments – proved to be unfounded.
My other reservation, which it seems was also shared by Guardian reviewer Susanna Rustin, was that Jack was a little too adult to be entirely plausible. OK, he is his mother’s 24/7 sole companion and she concentrates hard on giving him an excellent education…but Rustin objects to the fact that “completely missing from the prose is any sense of panic, disorientation, depression, the nameless terror conjured up by a string of associations” that is so common amongst children. I certainly remember feeling frightened of things when I was small. But then, perhaps this is because I am a different person – or perhaps this is because I grew up in a wider world. What need has Jack for real fear in Room? He needn’t be warned of Stranger Danger. He’s not going to get hit by a bus. His world is small, manageable, safe – he even yearns to go back to Room once he has left it, reminding us that happiness and security are altogether subjective ideas.
I take Rustin’s point that, like the darling ‘dungeon tot’ of the tabloids, Felix Fritzl, whose apparent delight in his new sunshine-filled world warmed the hearts of those readers who prefer happy endings, “at times the world according to Jack feels just too charming”. But in the end I find it hard to criticise Donoghue, despite my initial misgivings. Children of five are often pretty adaptable – and not all children of five are the same. Jack is not entirely unmarked by his life in captivity but he has not had the experience his mother has had – she has protected him from much of what she has suffered. I’m also wary that, by insisting that people who have been through extreme situations should be a certain way, we readily fall into the trap of tabloid journalism. Any “attempt to capture and package the meaning” of what Jack and his Ma have been through will always be inauthentic. Their situation is, in many ways, unique and, rather than wondering whether they should be more or less damaged than they appear, it seems more satisfying just to delight in this book. It is such a page-turner, it is so original and when it comes to getting completely lost in a book, Room is superlative.