Here Ms Donoghue talks to us about her choice of a child narrator, the role of faith in her book and the way "Room" is a universal story about parenthood.
Many reviewers have expressed wonderment at "Room" for its sheer inventiveness. In some ways the novel incorporates elements of several genres—mystery, horror, philosophy, even science fiction—while remaining a true literary novel; that is to say, unclassifiable. Did you have a specific mode or style in mind when you wrote it?
My main concern was to avoid the True Crime genre; from the start I saw this novel as having elements of fairy tale, horror, science fiction and those wonderful 18th-century novels with wide-eyed traveller narrators (“Gulliver's Travels”, “Robinson Crusoe”, “Candide”). I designed “Room” to work on several levels simultaneously. First and foremost to be a clean book: straightforward, clearly and linearly narrated, realistic. But also with lots of extras smuggled in for readers (like my professor partner) who relish that kind of thing: echoes of texts from Plato, to the King James Version, to “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, to “Catcher in the Rye”.
The novel is narrated from the perspective of Jack, a five-year-old boy. What were some of your motivations (and concerns) in writing from a child's perspective?
I never considered any other perspective: letting Jack tell this story WAS my idea in a nutshell. I hoped having a small child narrator would make such a horrifying premise original, involving, but also more bearable: his innocence would at least partly shield the reader on their descent into the abyss. I also knew that Jack would have some interesting things to say about our world, as a newcomer to it; the book's satire of modern mores and media, and interrogations of the nature of reality, grew out of Jack rather than being part of my initial agenda. I did have some technical worries about having such a young narrator: I knew the prospect of being stuck in a little kid's head would turn some readers off. But I never feared that Jack would be unable to tell the whole story.
Without unspooling too much of the plot, it's possible to say that Jack and his mother (known in the book as "Ma") are imprisoned together. As a result, Ma seems to raise Jack as a partner or ally as much as a son. Can you talk a bit about their relationship?
Let's start by saying that “Room” is not one of those horror stories in which family members confined together (remember “Flowers in the Attic” or “The Blue Lagoon”) turn to incest. Ma and Jack have a strangely intense relationship, but I always meant it to be a healthy one. It's got lingering elements of the mother-baby bond (for instance, in the breastfeeding) as well as aspects of alliance and friendship. For me (though not all readers agree) “Room” is a universal story of parenthood and childhood, and in Jack and Ma's relationship I wanted to dramatise the full range of extraordinary emotions parents and children feel for each other: to put mothering in a weird spotlight and test it to its limits. Because it does have limits. Yes, “Room” celebrates mother-love but it also painfully calculates those moments when Ma has to recognise that Jack needs something other than her protection. Those moments all parents come to when love takes the form of stepping back, letting go.
Both Ma and Jack pray and, especially in the case of Ma, find comfort in their faith. How does faith figure in to "Room"?
I've always been religiously inclined but it doesn't come up in most of my books. I always knew it would be central to “Room” because prisoners cling to whatever tatters of faith they've got: look at those Chilean miners and their daily prayer groups. Between you and me, I'm not sure how literally Ma believes in all that, but it certainly makes sense that she would have taken whatever vague Christian framework she had and offered it to Jack as part of her system for making meaning of their days, and keeping hope alive. Kids delight in 'magical thinking', whether in the form of the Tooth Fairy or the saints: whether you see these as comforting lies or eternal verities, they are part of how we help kids make sense of the world. I think that's why the religious element of “Room” does not seem to bother non-religious readers; they can just put it on a par with Santa. But for me, “Room” is a peculiar (and no doubt heretical) battle between Mary and the Devil for young Jesus. If God sounds absent from that triangle, that's because I think for a small child God's love is represented, and proved, by mother-love.
Finally, can you tell us a bit about what sort of research you did for the book?
Too much. I don't mean in quantity—like any writer of historical fiction, I go by the principle of digging up a hundred times more than I will actually use on the page. I mean in terms of what I could bear. I pushed myself, for instance, to find out how badly and weirdly children can be raised by adults who hate them, what they can survive and what they can't: I read every case on www.feralchildren.com. I researched births in concentration camps, children conceived through rape, children living in prison. I researched terrible things that happen to adults too (above all, the mind-breaking solitary confinement of approximately 25,000 American prisoners at any one time). But it's the kids who trouble me most. I always knew that Jack's story would be made bearable by Ma's constant love, but some of the children I read about when planning “Room”... let's just say I can't get them out of my head. I was left with a fierce sense that nothing I do is more important than giving my son and daughter what they—what all kids—deserve.
“Room”, by Emma Donoghue is published by Little, Brown and Company and out now
Room, By Emma Donoghue Essay
Whilst in the library skimming through the books, one in particular caught my eyes, Room by Emma Donoghue. The book’s dark colours and large red lettering with a child in the background gave a feeling of evil, not unlike that of the horror movie Insidious, and suggested the book had a horror or supernatural theme to it. Audrey Niffenegger, famous of course for The Time Traveler’s Wife amongst other popular novels, praised Room, saying that it’s ‘a book to read in one sitting.’ This combined with Room being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2010 and Sunday Times No.1 Bestseller increased my expectations significantly, and cemented it as my choice for this assessment. I read this book for enjoyment however, I must admit I was eager to finish it, which resulted in irrational irritation with the characters and detrimentally affected my response and interpretation of the book.
I realised that there are four sections to the book; present, ‘unlying’, dying and living. The titles of these four sections reminded me of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly; the caterpillar is represented as present, ‘unlying’ represents the truth that the caterpillar is not himself, dying is where it transforms into a pupa and lastly living where it turns into a butterfly. This foreshadowed the protagonist’s undergoing some changes through his life as he steps out into the living world.
The first half of the story is told from the protagonist Jack’s perspective, who is a five year old boy. I was able to relate to Jack’s habit of referring to objects in third person and also playing with toys while telling a story, all of which reminded me of myself when I was young. The love and help he gave his mother furthered my appreciation for him, however as the story progressed I began to dislike Jack’s lack of desire to escape. His selfishness also frustrated me, since as a child I was taught that greed was a sin to avoid. I had to remind myself that he was just a little boy and he had stayed in the room all his life, and that his actions were in fact understandable. Ma’s lies about the world however did not make sense to me, and it seemed surreal how much Ma would lie to Jack about how the world was fake. I didn’t understand the author’s intent in that, and I interpreted it as Ma already giving up on the idea of escaping but was revived later in the story.
During the second half of the story, Jack’s clinginess to his mother and also his fear of the outside world irritated me greatly as I was more independent when I was young. However the author’s constant reminder that he was just a five year old boy who hadn’t experienced the outside world mitigated my annoyance to the point where I could appreciate his situation. Ma’s attitudes towards the media and her peers when she first came out also exasperated me; these people were trying to help her and instead she dismissed them and continued to desire the end of her life. Again, maybe I couldn’t understand her feelings...
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