Long time no see! Sorry about that... Thank you to anyone who is still checking in with me or contacting me about The Divided Heart. So much to talk about...
But first, I was recently approached by Harry Bingham, writer and founder of UK-based The Writers' Workshop and The Word Cloud, an online writers' network (which looks like an amazing resource) about doing a blog exchange.
He had come across my initial response to Emma Donoghue's novel, Room, which I'll re-publish below.
Room is one of those books that inspires fierce debate, and how cool is it that we can now have these debates across oceans and time zones and with people we would otherwise have never met. So thanks to Harry for getting in touch. And to my mate Sally Rippin, who always knows which books to lend me just at the right time!
Here's the exchange... as Harry says, "Get stuck in yourself. Tell us why we're wrong. or right. Or anything." On his blog or mine or, even better, both... (Although, I think it's worth saying -- while there isn't any great detail about the plot here, unless you've read the book or at least lots about it, there should be a general *spoiler alert*.)
My initial post:
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.
Well, what a book! More than that, what an audacious concept. To take the true-life Joseph Fritzl story and fictionalise it – what a tasteless, ill-judged act that could have been.
And Donoghue’s Room is not seedy, not exploitative. What's more, Rachel, I think you’re right about the voice. This for example: 'I choose Meltedy Spoon with the white all blobby on his handle when he leaned on the pan of boiling pasta by accident. Ma doesn’t like Meltedy Spoon but he’s my favourite because he’s not the same.'
No question, that’s beautifully done. 'Meltedy', not Melty, or Melted, or even meltedy. And the imprecision of 'the white all blobby' (Jack’s phrase) but the precision of Ma's 'pan of boiling pasta'. The personification of the spoon. But above all that achingly touching phrase, 'because he's not the same'.
And yet, I ended up not liking the book, and here's why. If you take a subject of such darkness to write about it is your responsibility as an author – as a human – to honour the darkness. To follow the logic of your own storyline unflinchingly to where it leads.
But it seems to me (and I want to avoid spoilers) that Room evades every hard question. At the end of the book, everyone's fine. It was a bit weird adjusting, but only a bit. Jack and Ma had some difficult moments, but give them a few weeks and it's all over.
The book seemed like a Disney version of the truth, like wishful thinking. Do we honestly think that a pair who had undergone what Ma and Jack had undergone would not be severely scarred by their ordeal? Of course not. We know that people who suffer much less trauma are permanently injured. Donoghue's faultlessly appealing telling lifts her over and away from the painful question of what is actually being told. I think if you write about Fritzl, you need to deal with Fritzl. Donoghue writes beautifully – and I don’t for a second begrudge her success – but it’s not a book I’d recommend myself.
And finally, my comment on Harry's comment (since he kindly gave me right of reply):
I agree that if Donoghue had been writing a non-fiction book about Fritzl, then she would have had certain clear responsibilities. But surely as a fiction writer, as long as she is not directly harming or exploiting anyone, her main responsibility is to her story; and to fulfilling her own intentions as best she can.
I suspect what compelled Donoghue to write Room was curiosity about how a mother might manage in such extreme circumstances. After all, alongside the more horrific and traumatic elements of these stories is the question of how a person might cope with the boredom and banality of long days in captivity without going mad. For a mother, this would mean the trials of dealing with the day-to-day needs of your children in the most deficient of circumstances.
Like you, Harry, I initially had similar misgivings about Jack's innocent viewpoint keeping us at arm’s length from the true awfulness of his and Ma's circumstances. But I concluded that this was one of the book's main themes: a mother’s instinct to protect, and the limits of her power to do so. For Jack, their world, though at times confusing, was also comforting in its confines; it was all Jack knew. And therein lies the kind of questions I think Donoghue was seeking to explore.
Besides, on the matter of darkness, I don't know if you can get much grimmer than the image of a naive boy hiding in a cupboard and counting the number of times the bed squeaks as his captor–father rapes his young mother.
I agree the book hits some false notes in its second half, particularly the response of Ma's family, which at times seems too casual and careless. And it's true that we don't get a full sense of Ma's suffering, but again I think Donoghue is more interested in looking at the impact of the inevitable disruption to the intensity of the mother–child bond.
There are plenty of other, often much more sensationalist, sources out there if you're looking to rub your nose in the sickening reality of these real-life cases. But Donoghue was perhaps trying for something more poignant with her novel.
I think the fact that we're debating these questions is enough of a reason to recommend Room as a gripping and thought-provoking read.