The Dark Rooms Writers Have to Enter

Yes I’m a little late, but I have just devoured Emma Donoghue’s wonderful book, Room. Not since Christmas have I found a book that made me pause at every moment I could on my journeys around London, and even had me walking down the street reading in order to just get a few pages in before work.

One of the most beautiful things is the voice. A child narrator can sometimes be a little trite and affected, but Donoghue’s use of subtle syntax, vocabulary and slightly skewed perspective creates a powerful voice that’s delightful in its intimacy and disturbing through the reader’s external knowledge of the real situation Jack finds himself in.

With all the hype about the film, you probably already know the story. Just in case, we are seeing the world through the eyes of Jack, a five-year-old boy who is trapped, with his mother – ‘Ma’, in a high-tech cage created by a man who kidnapped her at the age of nineteen and repeatedly raped her. The idea for the book is taken from the disgusting Fritzl case in Austria, where a man trapped his daughter in a basement and repeatedly raped her, resulting in three children. Having looked at images of where she was held, it was interesting to note the level of detail Donoghue has used, right down to the cork on the wall. The imagination and logic she must have used to put together exactly how this tiny world works is in itself impressive.

To see this harrowing story through the eyes of the child is to offer us a unique perspective. On the one hand, it gives us hope. The delicate and intimate relationship between the mother and her son is a truly beautiful thing. In the words of the character of Ma – ‘he saved me.’ Through each other, they find solace in their captivity. Later in the book it also allows for a possibility of recovery, although I was pleased to see that this wasn’t made too simple.

The other thing it does it heighten the claustrophobia and shudder-inducing reality that these women (and there have been a disturbing number of them over the years) have been subjected to. His tiny voice repeating the actions they do over and over again every day, the tiny space they do ‘laps’ in, all of it creates a stifling atmosphere that is unnerving.

But I think there’s more going on here, something that was missing from a lot of the reviews I’ve read. Once the pair have escaped, it’s the reaction of the world that really allows the author to critique society. Firstly, on gender roles. Jack is referred to as ‘sweetie’ and ‘little lady’ because he has long hair and likes Dora the Explorer. The adults he meets are perplexed by his lack of interest in ‘boy’ things, and find it difficult to interact with him. Parenting itself is up for scrutiny. While Jack of course has had the extreme of constant contact with his mother, the activities they do together are fantastic, and he shrewdly observes that most of the parents he sees in ‘Outside’ tend to ignore their children, preferring to look at their phones or chat to other adults rather than interact.

Perhaps most poignant is the general hype and hysteria surrounding their story. Much like the real case, they are hounded by the press. Through Jack catching some of the news stories in a desire to see himself, the response is everything from sainthood to some sort of psychoanalytic deconstruction of us all being in our own ‘cages.’

Most horrific for the reader and damning for the media is the interview she gives. I loved the sideways dig at people that are prudes about breastfeeding; when the interviewer raises it as a shocking detail (she continued to breastfeed him), ‘Ma’ laughs at the absurdity that this intimate sharing between them is the most surprising thing about her story. The ‘hype’ of the media is beautifully illustrated by Ma’s unwillingness to accept herself as a hero. She is a woman that has survived an awful situation. She gives a list of others that are worse off than her (the only place I felt the slight touch of the author was how she knew the statistics for solitary confinement in the US), that go through difficult things every day, but lack the ‘freak’ quality that makes stories like this so lauded by the media.

The language of difficult situations is rife. How the boy must be ‘damaged,’ how she must want to ‘forgive.’ I very much appreciated the pragmatic approach that the author took. Yes, of course there are repercussions and both will have echoes of their ordeal in their later life, but I liked the way it was seen as a problem to overcome, not a life-defining change.

So why on earth write a book about something so horrible? When I told a friend what I was reading, he laughed. ‘Light reading, then?’ was his question. And my answer is, not exactly, but this stuff is vital. In the words of Ma, people are not good and evil. Hitler was not Voldemort, Pol Pot was not Sauron. We like to simplify narratives but, as Ma says, ‘people are both.’ Confronting the darkest parts is incredibly important. In this most specific case, and in lots of others such as rape, sexual abuse, discrimination, the list can go on. Hopefully this is something we won’t have to face ourselves, but it is vital that we struggle to understand that these things can and do happen. A narrative has the power to fully absorb you in a situation that a news report simply cannot. Once you understand the feelings of those involved, it opens our eyes to the possibilities – good and bad – of everyone. Only by moving away from easy stereotypes and confronting the terrible things that happen can we hope to understand ourselves and each other more.

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I'm a writer, teacher and drummer based in London. Short fiction and reviews are my main staples, along with some dabbling in novel writing.

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