Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Room, by Emma Donoghue

"Room" is a breathtaking, captivating and suspenseful novel. Donoghue vividly depicts her story's narrator's world, and tells the story from his singular point of view. If I reveal anything else about the story, though, I would take away from the jaw-dropping awe that comes with discovering that world for yourself. I don't want to spoil it for you. Which leaves me in the tricky position of trying to put together a book review without revealing any of the plot. I'll just say this: you will be drawn in by the compelling premise of Donoghue's story, as well as by Donoghue's ability to convey her narrator's story so convincingly. And, as if all that isn't enough for one novel, Donoghue structures the plot of "Room" with a great deal of finesse, withholding information and then artfully releasing it bit by bit, so as to maximize suspense.

"Room" was an uncomfortable read. At its start it was apparent there was something vague and unidentifiably wrong in the world Donoghue was painting, and as I tried to make sense of it I was reminded of a slowly developing Polaroid picture that still had blurry, unidentifiable forms. I felt a creepiness. I wanted to put the book down, but I didn't -- the suspense had me in its vice grip. Then, very slowly, the edges sharpened and the forms became recognizable. By that time "Room" was one of those books that demanded to be read. I let the phone ring, and forgot to start dinner; I couldn't put "Room" down.

There are great books, like "Room," and there is also life outside of great books, and sometimes the two intersect. Which brings me to my story of the bar mitzvah party I attended last night, in this year of endless bar and bat mitzahs. Last night, amidst the flutter of near-teenagers and the boom of Cotton Eyed Joe blasting over the sound system, I was struck at how a party can be very much like a novel. A party and a novel each consists of a set of characters forced by circumstance -- the constraint of a party room or the plot that tosses them together -- to interact, which is something that inevitably creates conflict. The cast of characters at a bar mitzvah party is stock: there are shy kids who hang at the perimeter, heads tilted towards the floor; there are gregarious, macho boys; there are flirty girls with shiny, long hair who have one foot in the adult world; there are the one-drink-too-many older relatives; there are the I'm-way-too-cool-to-get-on-the-dance-floor older siblings, and of course, there are the boisterous, middle-aged friends of the hostess who take advantage of every bar mitzvah party to bust a move. (Guess which category I fall in?) When I see the shy kids I'm reminded of the shy kid I once was and I want to shake those kids out of their self-conscious, self-inflicted oppression. When I see the flirty girls I want to say to them hey, slow down, have some fun, and be sure to be nice to the chubby kids. It's only now that I'm pushing 50 that I see that it's only when we can step out of the stories we have written about our own lives that we are afforded the opportunity to transcend the constraints we've imposed on ourselves.

Which brings me back to "Room," which, in a very round-a-bout way, illuminates one of the central struggles we humans face as we make our way through this world: the impulse we have to impose constraints over ourselves. In "Room" we get a tousled, yet heartbreakingly poignant riff on this theme, as we see a transcendence so astounding it can't help but make us reflect on the limitations and potential in own lives.

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