I am in love with Emma Donoghue. Not in a naked babymaking sort of way (well, maybe a little), in the sort of way that I want to be like her when I grow up.
I first read her when I was 16 and found Kissing the Witch, a book of retold fairytales, in a charity shop. I was a teenage goth, of course, so I mostly read shit like Poppy Z. Brite and Hubert Selby Jnr. But I was a nerd for fairytales and the book was only 50p and—most importantly—I was beginning to realise that I’d like to kiss witches. Princes were fine, if dull; witches were thrilling and familiar and would make me feel more like myself. Myself, but better.
Kissing the Witch was a revelation. It became one of my teenage bibles (the others being Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Emma Forrest’s Namedropper, and a biography of Courtney Love, because yes godammit I was one of those girls). When I went to university I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on retold fairytales, and concluded that Kissing the Witch was the only retelling that actually managed to subvert fairytales rather than just rehashing the same old clichÃƒÂ©s. Sorry, Angela Carter and Anne Sexton; Emma Donoghue wins this one.
All of this is to say that I approached Room with high hopes. I was not disappointed.
Room tells a straightforward story: five-year-old Jack lives in Room with Ma. He loves Ma and everything in Room, and as far as he’s concerned there is nothing else in the whole world. Literally. But Ma was kidnapped at 19 by a stranger and has been locked in Room—a reinforced, bunker-like shed—ever since. Now she has decided that Jack is old enough to learn the truth about the world—that not everything he sees on the TV is ‘just TV’, that it’s real, out there, only he can’t experience it. But Jack likes Room and doesn’t want to leave.
In a metaphorical sense, Jack’s experience is one that every one of us has had: letting go of the familiar safety of childhood and stepping out into the big bad world. It’s loud and dirty and there are too many people, and sometimes we just want to go home and stay there. This, perhaps, is why it’s so easy to cheer Jack on along his journey, and also why he can be so irritating. The ordeal is familiar and we know how hard it is, but we did it. We made it out, and no matter how much we might want to crawl back home we don’t do it. Jack’s success is ultimately a reminder of our own.
Donoghue manages to make some interesting points along the way about modern ways of childrearing, commercialism, the media, and how we think of time. It’s difficult to explain these further without spoiling the suspense of the novel, but I will say that although I didn’t always agree with Donoghue, I was interested in what she was saying.
Room is not my new bible, because it’s harder to think of books in that way when you’re not a teenager. I won’t be carrying it around inside my chest and I won’t write lines from it on the inside covers of my school exercise books. But Room has been floating around in my head ever since I read it, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. When I grow up, I want to write like this.