Survival in books: Emma Donoghue’s haunting novel, ROOM

The Bruised Muse has long been a fan of writer, Emma Donoghue. I loved and admired her novel, Slammerkin.  I was completely unprepared for ROOM. I had resisted reading this one for a long time, since I’d heard that the novel was about a kidnapped woman and her child held captive in an 11×11 cell.  I don’t generally read formulaic suspense novels any more, particularly creepy serial killer ones, and this sounded to me like a typical suspense plot.  I also wondered how a novel written in the voice of a five-year-old could possibly have anything to teach me, or even hold my interest all the way though. Boy, was I misguided.  ROOM has been haunting my dreams.  ROOM has intruded on my thoughts. ROOM makes me want to weep with envy at the author’s artistry and accomplishment. ROOM has even renewed my hope (well, a small bit of hope) that we can as a species survive. ROOM IS JUST BRILLIANT. BRILLIANT. BRILLIANT.

I’m often puzzled at the commercial success of many so-called “literary” novels I see on the bestseller list.  I wonder, What is it about this particular book that so very MANY people connect with? Why this book, and not that book?   What is this one’s magic?  What theme does this novel consider that resonates with so many people right now?  And why didn’t the book I read last week and found far more interesting, well written, engaging, or brilliant connect with enough others to make it too, or even instead of this one?

No one needs to read stories about made-up characters, of course, so it seems to me that (leaving Oprah aside) a novel succeeds commercially because millions of people recommend it, one by one (or social network by social network). That is, when one reader feels so moved that, without any reason at all (other than perhaps generosity), he or she will say to a friend, “You’ve got to read this. This is important. This will teach you something about life.” Multiply that formula by millions and you have a bestseller, in this case possibly even a classic.

ROOM is that rare book whose success is completely right and understandable. Unique, artful, poignant, authentic in its voice and characters, and beautifully, brilliantly written without flourishes or writerly self-consciousness, ROOM grabs you from the first minute and refuses to let go. Yet many (well, some) books do all that.

ROOM’S wisdom comes upon you slowly, like the light of a sunrise. In telling the story from the child’s point of view, Donoghue protects us from the horror, just as Ma protects her child. In focusing so tightly on the relationship between this devoted and inventive mother and this boy, by observing so clearly every single object and moment in its character’s 11 x 11 world, ROOM manages to illuminate the entire World.

I think ROOM connects with so many because it speaks to a certain planetary zeitgeist.  Everywhere on earth, things seem to be spiraling out of control, and Donoghue has written an unexpectedly hopeful book that speaks to human resilience in adversity, our capacity to survive. ROOM comments powerfully on our culture of gluttony, and profoundly teaches us about the nature and meaning of reality, how we construct our realities.

ROOM is also, of course, about the bond between mother and child. Most psychologists agree that failure to form a bond of attachment with at least one human being in the very early years can have devastating lifelong consequences. In my social work practice, I see many people who seem so damaged by early neglect, parental cruelty, selfishness or narcissism, and/or simple bad mothering/fathering, that it almost seems nearly impossible to effect repairs. ROOM forces you to note (and believe) that this remarkable woman, though she lives in constant personal terror, is managing to save her son by simply using her own good sense, subjugating her own needs to the needs of her child, and making the best of what she has for the sake of her child. And by saving her child, she also saves herself. And the hooked reader can’t help wonder about what will happen to Jack and Ma, even after that last powerful scene. The Bruised Muse has faith that what Ma has done will, in psychological terms, will be, “good enough.” How extraordinary. To wonder what will happen to made-up characters. Now THAT’S suspense. And suspense is another reason the book succeeds. By adhering broadly to the outline of a creepy suspense novel, yet being completely without creep, ROOM draws in the reader looking for “suspense,” but effectively turns the genre inside out.

The Bruised Muse also found that ROOM has aroused her long suppressed desire to write fiction again. (Wait. No. Don’t.  Push it away. Don’t be a fool.)

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