Monthly Archives: October 2010

Room, by Emma Donoghue

Room, by Emma Donoghue

Room by Emma Donoghue offers the not-faint-of-heart reader the hermetic and troubling conceit of living inside the head of a five-year-old boy who has only known captivity in an eleven-foot-square shed. That captivity is shared with his mother, who has been in what the child Jack calls Room for seven years. She resourcefully manages to make their confined world one of surprising vibrance and great affection. Their existence is periodically interrupted by visits from his Ma’s captor, but the child is largely shielded from those visits and interaction with that menacing visitor, as much as is possible in the constrained space of that tiny world.

It isn’t really a spoiler to reveal that the child and his mother eventually manage to escape Room. It’s perhaps more of a spoiler to give away how happy (or not) they are to escape and return to (in the mother’s case) and enter for the first time (in Jack’s case) the Outside world.

The greatest strength of this book is that it is imbued with the authentic voice of a child, spiked with idiosyncrasies both normal for the narrator’s age, and with those which could be reasonably and realistically attributed to his unusual upbringing, such as precocious vocabulary or other more developmentally stunted perceptions. The question of whether the book strains what is believable and unbelievable can simply be set next to recent headlines for such real-life stories as those of Elisabeth Fritzl and Jaycee Dugard. The question of whether the book strains what is and isn’t possible is answered step by step with logical explanations for how Ma and Jack are kept confined and isolated.

So then, the book is plausible and sound in terms of premise, structure and tone. So why does it so strain then with respect to emotional resonance … or at least strains so for this reader?

Quite simply, if Donoghue had said less, with fewer detailed and sometimes rambling specifics, the book would have had greater emotional depth and appeal. Jack’s various experiences of and observations of the Outside world, while clever, undoubtedly well researched and offering new perspectives on mundane day-to-day things that we all take for granted, quickly become overkill. It likely replicates the sensory overload that Jack also experiences, but it’s just tedious for the reader. By the time Jack stumbles across some TV commentators analyzing what he symbolizes, the profundity of what he and his mother have gone through has been hammered home too hard and verges into reality TV territory – which, sadly, the real-life versions of this story do, too. It doesn’t make these episodes any less appalling or heartwrenching, but it makes you want to shut them all off.

Yes, Room pushes all the right buttons, but that’s just it: I felt like my buttons were being pushed, and I resisted.

It’s perhaps hokey to say in a review that you really wanted to like a book or movie or whatever (and heaven knows I’ve said it before). I *did* want to like Room and maybe had expectations I would based on the wave of glowing reviews (blog/tweet/civilian as well as media/industry), literary award nominations and outrage at nominations some felt this book additionally deserved.  Many euphoric reviews led me to believe that I would be up all night reading this book in one gulp, regardless of how I felt, but that wasn’t my experience. I found myself labouring to finish it, even bored at times. I appreciate the obvious craft and thought and careful validation that went into this book, but a more impressionistic and less specific account would have left room for the reader – reader by reader, to each reader’s capacity and taste, to flesh it out in an emotionally authentic fashion. Perhaps Donoghue’s choice of narrator doesn’t make that possible however, as extraordinary young Jack is wired by his age and experience to report everything copiously and literally.

Annabel, by Kathleen Winter

Annabel, by Kathleen Winter

Even a brief summing up of the story of Annabel is by no means simple. A child is born in a remote Labrador village in the late 1960s. The child is born a hermaphrodite, bearing both male and female reproductive organs. Three people know how the child came into the world: the child’s parents and a woman who is a trusted family friend who attended at the birth. The three people have different perspectives then and throughout the child’s life as to how the child should be raised. However, a decision is taken early in the child’s life to raise him (well, that gives it away, doesn’t it?) one way, and to keep the other part of his identity a secret, even from him.

Not unexpectedly, the decision has repercussions: some immediate, some longer term, some clearly and directly affecting and making an impression on the child Wayne, and some having more effect or creating more strains or complications for the people around him/her. In many ways, Wayne’s childhood is one of growing and thriving in a curious, unique but generally emotionally and physically secure fashion, with the firm but divergent nurturing of the three loving people who know his complete story. He also flourishes with the friendship and affection of a singular female friend. That friend’s name is Wally, short for Wallis, which echoes a famous Wallis who, ironically, was also rumoured to be intersex … which, of course, only added to her mystique.

Author Kathleen Winter populates Wayne’s world with images and influences that fill out the fraught, magical world of his/her existence like so many swirling snowflakes, but also testify symbolically to the very particular beauty of his not fully realized duality. Stars and constellations, statistics and synchronized swimming are all literal interests of Waynes, but also manifestations of and analogies for the symmetries and mysteries of which he/she is comprised. They also hint at how those symmetries are not fully realized and balanced.

“You can’t be synchronized if you’re by yourself. Imagine synchronizing your watch to the right time if it is the only watch in the world.”

Wayne’s fascination with the idea of living on (rather than crossing) a bridge, and Wayne and Wally’s fanciful, fragile and temporary refuge, a fort built and poised delicately over a creek … Annabel brims with vivid images that capture memorably Wayne’s unwitting suspension between worlds, genders and selves.

Perhaps most potent of all the elements in Annabel are those of voices literally and figuratively suppressed and lost, then regained and found. Wayne/Annabel learns in very dramatic and specific fashion what he/she is comprised of, and then is tested most cruelly only as he/she is gaining a true sense of self and voice. Similarly, long lost and then found friend Wally fights to regain her voice in a long fought battle of a different kind. For both, their new voices …

“… came from a different person, a person who had learned how to build a voice from the ruins up, a person who had lost everything and had begun from having worse than nothing.”

The weekend I devoured Annabel, I was also reading an absorbing essay by the award-winning Canadian poet A.F. Moritz, entitled “What Man Has Made of Man / Can poetry reconnect the individual and society?” In many respects, Moritz’s essay is a reflection on the differences between solitude (a good and contemplative state), communion/community and isolation.

“The formative struggle of the modern individual’s life is to find a place in society …There’s no such division as the one usually made, between inward and private life on the one hand, political and economic life on the other. It’s a matter of life and death. Isolation is death. A society that isolates its individual members from itself, placing them in enforced solitude, or that gives them only a simulacrum of communion, is deathly, and it is deathly because what it believes in is death. Communion on the other hand is life and comes out of belief in life.”

While Wayne/Annabel’s future is not defined in the end, that future’s prospects are presented with hope nonetheless. Wayne/Annabel is moving steadily from isolation to communion and to a comfortable and rightful place in a world of his/her choosing.

Kathleen Winter has seamlessly woven compelling and organic layers of themes and symbols with, at its foundation, a heartfelt story of loving steadfastly and unconditionally, and striving to find one’s place and identity while retaining respect for others.