We were in sunny St. Ives in Cornwall last week, staying in the cottage of 'naive' artist Alfred Wallis (literally a stone's throw from Porthmeor Beach, pictured to the left). It was perfectly relaxing - lots of sun and paddling in the sea and reading and eating delicious seafood and long vigorous coastal walks. I could have stayed for another decade at least. But alas, back to the real world. It was very conducive to Orange Prize reading while it lasted. I polished off the whole 300+ pages of A Visit from the Good Squad on the train journey from Yorkshire (simply brilliant - why wasn't it on the shortlist?); and then proceeded to gobble up Emma Donoghue's Room over the course of a day and half on the beach; and finally progressed past the first chapter of Nicole Krauss' Great House and finished it on the eight hour return train journey. I also managed a third of Grace Williams Say it Loud. Phew. I felt positively giddy on literary fiction by women.
It leaves me on the last leg of the longlist, with just five longlistees and two shortlistees to go. I plan on dedicating myself to the shortlistees, and am hopeful that I can polish them off before the final announcement the week after next. The remaining longlisters will get their turn thereafter, and hopefully I'll have them all rounded off by the end of June. Not quite up to speed this year, but it's the taking part that counts.
Of the books that I read in St Ives, Room was the one that exercised me the most. It is surely the favourite to win this year's Bessy (and always was, right out of the gate.) Shortlisted for the Booker last year, and lauded by all and sundry, it has captured both the critical and popular imagination. For my own part I have studiously avoided it for nine months, ignoring all the trumpeting and praise and feeling faintly discomforted by the premise. You know how it goes: Jack, our five year old narrator, was born and raised in the single small room in which his mother has been imprisoned by a shadowy night-time figure he knows only as 'Old Nick'. Although he has seen figments of the outside world on their old TV set, Jack's mother has allowed (and encouraged) him to believe that only 'Room' and its contents are real. He has no conception of the great wide world; he and his mama may as well be floating, rudderless, in Outer Space. Then an opportunity to escape presents itself, an almost impossible chance for a freedom Jack can't begin to comprehend, and nothing will ever be the same again.
I'll be honest, I don't know what to make of it. I didn't know when I was reading it; I didn't know straight after; and even now, after several days of thinking on it, I still don't know. It started an internal critical war for me, hard fought between my demons and my better angels. I'll dramatise for you, in lieu of a review:
Better Angels: What a fascinating insight into the psychology of a child captive's mind! See, for example, how Donoghue shrinks the world of the novel to fit the smallness of Jack's world by dropping the definite article, so that it isn't a room but 'Room' and it isn't the table but 'Table', 'Rug', 'Bed' and so on. Because Jack only knows of single things! So when he encounters the outside world the biggest shock is going to be the multiplicity of rooms, tables, rugs, beds: the shock of the definite article...
Demons: Hang on a minute. Don't get carried away on the dropping of the definite article. Isn't the effect more infuriating and affected than anything else? Just a way (amongst many) of infantalising Jack's voice for writer's pretence. After all, he is hyper-literate for a five year old, well-acquainted with the use of the definite article in other respects and incredibly sophisticated at expressing himself. It's just a well-placed trick to make him adorable, like the meerkats on comparethemarket.com adverts and their refrain of 'Simples!'.
BA: But it's very consistently and well applied and Donoghue follows it up in the outside world, so that we see how Jack begins to understand and rationalise the fact that there are innumerable examples of tables and chairs and things that up until then have been unique and individual. It isn't just a short-cut characterisation; it's a psychological reality for him.
Demons: Ok, yes, that's true, but she doesn't extend the concept far enough. Just like there is some weak gesturing at the extraordinary disturbance Jack must have felt when meeting people other than his Mama for the first time. His not wanting to be touched and so on. But he gets over that pretty easily, didn't he? I know children are quick to adapt but he seemed remarkably well-adjusted after a mere two weeks out of Room. Well-adjusted but with some nice little quirks still, to show us that he remains different (e.g his dislike of shoes, and his fear of getting rained on). It seemed to me that Room functioned on these tics of voice and little signposts of difference, to intimate vaguely at what must be the enormous psychological gulf between Jack and the outside world. But Donoghue didn't spend enough time unpicking the impact of the schema that holds our world together, the ones that Jack would never have learnt; she only touches on minor outward seeming things like the 'Manners' that he needs to learn. It's not brave enough.
BA: I think you're being unfair. Donoghue suggests a lot of the difficulties that Jack encounters, like the disorientation of realising that there can be two identical objects in two different places, or that something continues to exist when it is out of his view.
Demons: Suggests yes, but thoroughly explores? I mean, the latter - understanding that something continues to exist when you can no longer see it - that's something a child learns very early in its development. Can you imagine the trauma of learning it as late as five years old, and under the circumstances that Jack learns it? Donoghue makes it too easy for him and for the reader - she's playing at representing what a child raised in that environment would be like out in the world. I think it shows a lack of ambition in tackling the true enormity of the subject of the novel.
BA: But you're discounting the impact of the TV and Jack's mother. I mean, he's already partly prepared through his years spent watching and observing them. He's prepped; the novel just flicks the switch that turns a possibility into a reality. And you can't deny how movingly the relationship between mother and son is played out?
Demons: No, you've got me on that one. And I did think it was interesting, the way she perceives Jack's birth as 'saving' her during her captivity. That by bringing him into that world, and condemning him to live confined as she was, allowed her to live on. I appreciate the moral questions that prompts. I also liked the way that she wasn't always nice and understanding with Jack; that although she was an amazingly perceptive and innovative parent, she often failed to comprehend him or the way he saw the world they shared, and privileged her own extended worldview. It made for a believable sort of intimacy. The novel was strongest when it focused on that relationship.
BA: And don't forget it was very suspenseful. Even you have to admit that the escape scenes were pulse-raising.
Demons: Pulse-raising I grant. But pretty unbelievable. The whole book rests on a lot of improbables and forced scenarios. The escape is bad enough, but the worst is the liberating of Jack's mother. What the police do there, enticing Jack (who has never spoken to another living soul and who has no conception whatsoever of spatial geography) to help them find Room, that would never happen.
BA: You don't know that!
Demons: Oh come on, it would never happen! Never! They would have whisked him straight off to the police station or the hospital or somewhere else to be interviewed under controlled conditions. It's like something straight out of a film. Donoghue herself recognises this when she has one police officer quip to the other that she's going beyond the call of regular duty.
BA: I think you're just sore that the story is inspired by real-life events - you think Room is lazy.
Demons: Ok, yes, I do. Lazy and manipulative, because it is tapping into raw and recent emotional resonances. I particularly think so when the plot is so, so, so close to the Fritzl case, right down to the mode of escape and the five year old boy.
BA: Don't you think that's a bit hypocritical, when you positively encourage historical novelists to take real world events as their inspiration? And surely emotional resonance is a good thing to tap; it's powerful.
Demons: I knew you were going to come back at me with that. I like historical fiction to revisit real world events when it provides new angles, opens up new interpretations, provides insight.
BA: You don't think Room offers insight into the horrifying experiences of people like Elizabeth Fritzl and her children?
Demons: No. Because Room is a push-button novel. It doesn't do anything with the extremity and trauma of that experience that a good piece of investigative journalism wouldn't do; it's just raising our temperatures for effect without telling us anything we couldn't have figured out by ourselves.
BA: Aha, but it's from Jack's viewpoint! Surely that's a unique way of seeing the situation?
Demons: I have to disagree. The use of viewpoint in this case excites our sympathy and gives an 'angle', but it relies too much upon those linguistic gimics (like the definite article thing) and quirky details (like the shoe thing). In fact, it belittles the whole situation, by turning it into some kind of developmental guessing game: what cute or curious thing will Jack do next because he's been locked in a shed for his whole life?!
BA: Now you're being really unfair. I think that Jack's innocence of the horror of his situation, and his strange affection for Room and his old life, acts as an amplifier for the reader. It makes his reactions both explicable and even sadder than they would otherwise have been. What would you have preferred?
Demons: Multiple voices, definitely. Jack's mother, and Old Nick, and other people they encounter. Just Jack is too shallow an approach to something so enormous.
BA: So you admit that the subject matter is fertile ground, and novels like this are necessary?
Demons: Of course, and Room is an interesting exercise in investigating it. And it makes for pretty compelling reading. And I can see why people admire it. But I still wish it was a little subtler; a little broader; a little less gimicky.