Monday, January 24, 2011

If I were less of a curmudgeon...

by Emma Donoghue

I didn't get around to reading Room until several months after it was published, and arguably I heard too much before I started it. But more than plot points or spoilers, I heard too much hype. Friend after friend spoke so glowingly of the novel: "I read it in one sitting." "I can't sleep for thinking about it." "This book was transformative." I have to tell you, that was not my reaction at all.

It was a good book--unusual--but I didn't love it. One thing I knew going in is that the story is told from the point of view of five-year-old Jack. In very broad strokes, I'll describe the plot. Jack's mother was abducted as college student by a man she calls "Old Nick." She has been held in an 11 X 11-foot finished shed in his back yard for the past seven years. At five, Jack has never set foot outside. He has never looked out a window. The eponymous room and its contents is his entire world. As noted above, Jack is narrating the story in his own semi-precocious voice. Certainly this is a creative approach to story-telling and is why so many people have loved the novel, but it was my least favorite aspect of the story.

We all know that as horrific a tale as Donoghue is telling, aspects of it might as well be ripped from the headlines. But I'd much rather experience the complex fear and despair of the captive mother's thoughts than hear from the five-year-old, "Ma's having one of her bad days." While there are some amazing aspects of seeing the tale unfold through Jack's innocent eyes, there's a price to be paid in sophistication. I'd have been a lot more satisfied had the narration alternated between the two.

And then there's this: I am not a child-oriented person. I'm not a parent, and if I'm going to be blunt, I'm not a fan of small children. As they tend to do in life, this child narrator annoyed me. (Sorry! I know I'm an awful person--but honest.) I don't recall feeling the same way about Jonathan Safran Foer's child protagonist of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. What a difference a few years makes.

So, clearly I'm unable to embrace this novel with the affection that others have. That said, it handily earns four stars for the caliber of the writing, the awesome creativity of the approach, the depth of the characters, and the riveting plot. Undoubtedly, were I not a curmudgeon, I'd quickly cough up that fifth star and give this book the full accolades it deserves.

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