Emma Donoghue’s Room
HarperCollins, 2010

(Looking for a swallow rather than a full glass? ORANGE Squirt below.)

I’d hoped to re-read Room before writing about it here, in the context of the Orange Prize shortlist, but I still have two fresh reads from this year’s shortlist ahead of me (The Memory of Love and The Tiger’s Wife) and the longest of the long-listed books (The Invisible Bridge). So no re-read of Room for me just now, only my thoughts looking back on the read.

First off, I was thrilled to pick up a copy of Room around the holidays last December. If you’d checked, you’d likely have found my pulse elevated at the mere sight of it, there, for the having. (What fantastic marketing…even a font created just for Jack!)

It was sitting on the Best Bets shelf in my local library branch (the category of books that is non-renewable, most-recently-published, and placed strategically at the top of the stairs to tempt you before you even walk into the library proper: this section is my reader’s downfall, even when it comes to books that I wasn’t already hoping to find there).

Attending the Toronto launch for Room’s release last September whet my reader’s appetite and, even months later, I was keen to read the novel that, it seemed, e-v-e-r-y-b-o-d-y else had already read. So I snatched it up quick-like.

[Usually I have the opposite response to books that receive this kind of hype but, in this case, I had fond reading experiences of Emma Donoghue’s fiction behind me. I had reason to believe that the hype was warranted.]

Yes, I’ve read Emma Donoghue before. I’ve been reading her since the mid-90s, when I used to have to special order her fiction (even lesser known non-fiction and anthologies) at my local indie because nobody had heard of her let alone stocked her.

With Kissing the Witch, she moved onto my Buy-Immediately-Even-if-it’s-a-Hard-Cover-list. I loved those stories: I read the collection three times and pressed it upon reading friends. (I re-posted my thoughts on this one to coincide with her appearance at the International Festival of Authors last autumn.) And I loved Slammerkin, which made my list of favourite books in 2002.

Why am I telling you all this?

Maybe you are wondering if it’s some weak attempt to assure you all that I’m oh-so-clever for having known of her work before Room, before e-v-e-r-y-b-o-d-y else was reading her?

Nope. I distinctly remember hearing of her work from another reader in a bookclub, so she was not my personal “discovery” and, even if she had been, for every writer whose work I’ve discovered, there are a thousand I’ve overlooked. That’s not it.

I’m telling you all this in an attempt to distract from my lacklustre response to Room. I’m hoping that some of the affection that I’ve had for her other writing will rub off on Jack and Ma, because I do understand why a lot of other readers loved their story more than I did, and part of me wishes that I responded that way too.

Well, here’s how I did respond. I read it all, in my allotted seven days, in snatches of time stolen from busy family-packed responsibilities at the end of December. I didn’t even stop to take notes.

I desperately wanted to know “what happened” because, even though an attendee at the launch in September had given away the major plot event, I still wanted to know “what happened NEXT”.

(To be fair, the author, too, expressed her disappointment in this having been revealed at the event and indicated that she had been very careful, to that point, to avoid discussing that element.)

That all sounds good, right? And I really was engaged in Jack’s and Ma’s story that far.

But I was conscious of wanting to know how Emma Donoghue arranged that outcome.

I couldn’t set aside my awareness of how she was constructing the world these two characters inhabited.

I was still curious, but I felt as though I was simply following along,  not fully engaged, but almost dutifully engaged.

One of the qualities that I most enjoyed about Emma Donoghue’s historical novels was the sense that she had read 100 books about the time period and then put them all away. They seemed filled with period details in just the right way, enough information to make it believable without it being so much that you thought the author had been schooled in it. It felt natural.

And, indeed, in her interview with Shelagh Rogers on “The Next Chapter”, Emma Donoghue draws a comparison between Room and Slammerkin, saying that she felt that, if there was indeed a connection between any of her earlier works and Room that it would be Slammerkin.

Both novels are “dark toned survival stories”. (I love that comparison actually: it does ring true. Absolutely.)

She mentioned that some of the techniques required in writing Room were those she had also employed in writing historical fiction, like Slammerkin. In both cases she conjured up a small, strange world, relaying it to the reader through the voice of a narrator who finds this world completely normal from their perspective.

In the case of Room, she said, the most challenging bit was to create Ma as a believable character, when limited to the 5-year-old perspective of Jack. Jack’s view is inherently limited by his age and lack of experience in both usual and unusual ways.

In some aspects, as Emma Donoghue explained in that interview, he embodies typical qualities of children that age; he can appear very grown-up in one moment and, in the next, babyish. But, in other ways, he is atypical, able to recite newscasts in a remarkably articulate voice, but unable to climb stairs (because Room, where they live, is just that, a room, without a second floor).

In an effort to make Jack believable, the author actually directly transcribed things her own five-year-old son had said. Some of these are used word-for-word in the novel. And she even asked him to sort out a major plot element of the story, asked him to contribute the events to ensure that a five-year-old could have conceived of such things. (So her son knew what was going to happen before any of the adult readers at that booklaunch could have even considered asking questions with spoilers in them!)

And why am I telling you all of this?  (Especially when you can listen to it directly here.)

Because I do think she did her job. And I can see that she went through all the steps. And all those steps have worked for me before. (But they felt natural to me before. I didn’t feel like I could spot the construction elements.)

So I’m left wondering whether perhaps I would have loved the book more if I hadn’t felt it was already surrounded by so much adoration already.

When I look at the list of past winners of the Orange Prize, I think it’s likely that Room will take home the prize. Obviously that would make many readers happy — and many readers have loved Room — but there is at least one other book on the shortlist that I loved more, even though I might have thought I’d feel differently, might have even wished that I had.

What about you?

[Edited to add that there are, and likely will be, spoilers in the comments: it’s almost impossible to discuss this book without revealing bits and pieces…especially so many months after publication.]

ORANGE Squirt 2011: Book 14 of 20 (Emma Donoghue)

Originality Confinement narrative X Child narrator
Readability Very strong
Author’s voice Consistently from 5YO Jack’s perspective
Narrative structure Chronological, straightforward
Gaffes None spotted
Expectations Couldn’t be higher! For which award has it NOT been nominated?