Monday, January 24, 2011

Writing the child's voice

Have any of you read Emma Donoghue’s Room?

The difficulty with talking about this book is that there’s almost no way of doing so without giving away key plot points.

Nevertheless, I can say that I can’t remember the last time I read a book that had me so gripped, and affected me so physically! At one stage I was reading in the bath and was so utterly compelled to keep reading, the water went completely cold around me and I didn't even notice.

I had some small misgivings — perhaps only to be discussed with those who have also read the book, in the comments, with a ‘spoiler alert’ — but they didn't take away from its overall impact.

The main reason I am mentioning the book here, though, is because I think it’s a great example of a novel written by someone who has used their access to a child's way of talking and seeing the world as material for writing.

Some of us have more access to our ‘child selves’ than others — or at least memory of what it was like to be young — and I’m not trying to suggest that you cannot understand or write from a child’s perspective unless you have kids… but it sure does help.

The authenticity of this book’s five-year-old narrator’s voice — with it’s cute grammatical errors and limited perspective — suggests close observation of her children.

I also felt great admiration for the 'Ma' character, who shows such remarkable creativity and discipline in raising and educating her child, under the most horrific and potentially damaging circumstances. And at the same time, this focus and need for routine that he requires has been her saviour.

Admittedly there were moments when I felt frustrated by the five-year-old narrative — not the character himself, who remains loveable throughout (quite a feat in itself), but the way his viewpoint kept you at a distance from the central horrors of the story.

But then I realised that this avoids the sensationalism that its theme could easily have exploited, and that this book is much more about the force of the parent–child bond. It raises all sorts of questions about the nature of freedom and about a child's needs. Also their capacity for fierce love and courage.

I’m sure many of you have read it, so would love to hear your thoughts...

(And sorry not to respond to the very thoughtful comments on the previous post yet... will get to that ASAP).


Sally Rippin said...

I agree with your comments Rach. I found the book utterly compelling and read it in two days. Then I picked up Lloyd Jones' stunning book "Hand Me Down World" which is also, among other things, about how far a mother would go to protect her child. SO beautifully written and the author has such amazing insight into human nature. And once again an incredible exercise in voice - this time one story told from many points of view. I'll lend that one to you next. :-)

Miscellaneous-Mum said...

I finished it in less than 24 hours (it was this post which inspired me to buy it on the Kindle!) My reading experience was breathless and fast, I had to know what would happen next.

Comparisons are fruitless, I daresay, but my son is almost the exact same age as Jack in the novel and so I did have the occasional niggle that his 'voice' came across as being older than his chronological age. Most reactions/speech were spot on, some clanged a little.

I agree with you about the 'Ma' character, though. I shiver to think what I'd do in her circumstance.

Rachel Power said...

Hi Karen! Yes, I have a 5-yr-old too, and I agree with you that Jack's speech was pretty mature at times. I partly put this down to the intensity of his education from his mother. In the book at one point there's a report saying something about his development being delayed, and I thought it was strange that it wasn't mentioned that in many ways he was also clearly very advanced. It's always so difficult to work out what's deliberate and what's accidental (in terms of the author's intentions) in a book like this.
But breathless reading, definitely!

Red Hen (dette) said...

I haven't read this one but I think I will now!