Review: Room

November 25, 2011 Comments Off on Review: Room

It’s easy to see why this book is so popular. Anyone who grew up enjoying tales of plucky children escaping Dickensian workhouses and orphanages would immediately take to this story: a woman and her son plot their escape from the room where they have been held captive since before the kid’s birth. Unfortunately, the narrator is five-year-old Jack. I could have warned Donoghue that young kids make dangerous narrators; somewhere there may exist writers who can really make it work, but she isn’t one of them.

I have to admit that I am unqualified to criticize a five-year-old voice because I don’t have a five-year-old to observe, but all the same it rings very wrong. For a kid whose vocabulary and literacy is so advanced that he is being taught the word “poignant” near the beginning of the book, he talks like a real idiot. I’m convinced that his language is mostly more appropriate to a three-year-old… who happens to know words like “astonishing.” It’s jarring and poorly done. His syntax is quite primitive for someone who watches a lot of television and has an educated mother who has taught him to read. And he calls everything by a proper name, like how he eats breakfast at Table in Room and plays with toys from Under Bed. It sounds stupid and I don’t think it actually sounds like something a five-year-old would really say. And he talks about “she persons,” which is absolutely stupid because I remember talking to small children and saying things like, “See that lady on TV?” I think it smacks of too much effort to imitate something unfamiliar to the writer. Plus there’s nothing attractive about being privy to all a five-year-old’s thoughts. The first part is excruciatingly boring because it’s Jack narrating every single detail of a typical day in Room, and, really, a five-year-old delivering a coherent plot is such an absurd idea anyway that there’s probably no way to do it well.

I can’t help thinking of another young Jack: four-year-old Jack Burns, from John Irving’s Until I Find You. Irving did it right; he tells it from Jack’s point of view but not in his voice, and it works marvelously. Much better than Room. Although at some points Room’s story begins to be told, in dialogue overheard by Jack, by adult characters, and those parts work much better.

BUT the plot is fun, especially if you grew up with this kind of story—it’s just an adult version of the orphanage. And the evolution of Jack’s attitudes and thoughts towards the end is quite well done. Plus, the world is so full of stories where police and governments and hospitals need to be worked around that it’s nice to see stories where they actually do their job well, for a change. Although the story does really seem to go on for too long: the “orphanage” part is the interesting part, and then it’s just a lot of dull epilogue, over the course of a couple more books. So, a mediocre read: a fun story written mostly very poorly. Difficult to really recommend, but not a complete loss if you want to spend the time.

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