Fiction: “Room” by Emma Donoghue

RoomThis year for Oscar!Watch, I decided to level up for some unknown reason – oh, wait, do you guys who follow my reading blog but not my movie blog even know about Oscar!Watch?

Every year, when the Oscar nominees get announced, I attempt to see every movie nominated for what I call the Big 8 categories: Best Picture, Best Director, the four Acting categories, and the two Writing categories. I even make a chart and everything to aid in my quest. And every year, I always miss about three or four movies that don’t make their way to Maine in the appropriate time period.

So this year, because Oscar!Watch isn’t hard enough, I guess, I decided to also read the books that were the source material for the Best Adapted Screenplay nominees. I’m not sure why I made that decision; I think it was a combination of realizing that the nominees were all based on books that were readily available (as opposed to an obscure play), and those books were all available at My Local Library (well, almost all – the Yarmouth Library has a disheartening amount of Patricia Highsmith titles, so Carol or The Price of Salt remains elusive – I mean, they don’t even have Strangers on a Train, what’s with that?), and maybe there was also a part of me that, when looking at the titles, said to herself, “I might enjoy reading that anyway.”

I think there may have also been some thought about wanting to discover the One True Winner of this category, because I can guarantee that the Oscar voters don’t take the time to read the books the movies are based on, watch the movies, and then vote based on how well the original source material was adapted into the resulting film. I’m guessing that, when it comes to that category, the Academy members vote for the film they feel was the best written, and it just happens that the source material isn’t original. But I almost want them to vote the first way: see the source material, watch the resulting adaptation, and vote for the movie that accomplishes the best version of their source material.

But regardless of what my intentions were, it was a decision I made, and I was able to read four out of the five nominees. I kicked off the reading session with Room.

I didn’t really have any idea what Room was about when it first came out a few years ago. I know I saw it everywhere – especially Target; I seem to remember seeing a lot of it at Target – but I wasn’t interested enough to pick it up to read the back of the book. (It may have also been a situation like with Water for Elephants, where the back of the book is all blurbs and no plot description. Stop doing that, Publishers! I am not buying your book without knowing what it’s about [unless it’s an author I’m already familiar with]!) I also wasn’t entirely sure if it was fiction or non-fiction. Spoiler alert! It’s fiction.

The story of Room is told by Jack, and we meet Jack and his Ma on his fifth birthday. Jack is our narrator, and Jack and Ma live together in Room. Jack spends his day doing chores, running “track” back and forth across Room, playing “Scream,” a game where he and Ma scream up at the skylight of Room, and watching TV. Jack believes that what he sees in TV isn’t Real, but everything that happens in Room is real.

After Jack goes to bed at night, Ma is visited by Old Nick, who brings them groceries, clothes, and Sunday-Treat: a special object every Sunday, be it candy or a new toy. But Old Nick only visits after Jack is hidden in his wardrobe bed; Jack has never seen Old Nick’s face.

Because the story is told from the perspective of a five-year-old boy, there are a lot of jumps the reader has to make to understand what’s really happening. For instance, when Old Nick is visiting Ma, Jack can hear them making the bed’s mattress creak. Jack thinks they’re just pushing the mattress up and down (which seems like an odd game to Jack), but the reader can read between the lines to recognize what’s actually happening.

The reality that Ma has shielded Jack from for the previous five years is this: Ma was a college student and was tricked by Old Nick one day.  Old Nick kidnapped her and locked her in this Room, which turns out to be a soundproofed shed he keeps in his backyard – hence, playing “Scream” in the hopes of being heard: Ma has turned a hope of rescue into a game. Old Nick repeatedly rapes Ma, and Jack is the product of one of those rapes. Ma has done all in her power to enforce healthy habits with what she’s given: because they can’t leave Room, Jack and Ma move the bed around and do aerobics and “run track,” which is just back and forth the length of the room to keep their strength up. They bathe as much as possible, and she makes sure Jack brushes his teeth after every meal. She makes up a grocery list for Old Nick, and she always requests food with good nutritional value.

Ma couldn’t tell Jack the entire scope of their situation, because he was too young to understand. I mean, if you’re a five-year-old who’s been raised to not realize that there’s an Outside, you never want to go Outside. If you think cars that you see on TV aren’t real, then you won’t ask why we don’t have a car, why can’t we go anywhere. It was a coping mechanism for Ma, but also for Jack – he can’t feel bad about their situation if he doesn’t really know what their situation is.

Shortly after Jack’s birthday, Old Nick tells Ma that he’s been unemployed for six months, and the house may get foreclosed upon if he can’t get work. Jack, our narrator, doesn’t understand what that means, but Ma certainly does. If the house is foreclosed upon, Old Nick won’t just let them go – he’s going to kill them. So Ma spends a couple of days to come up with a plan; when she does, she realizes the most important thing is also the hardest: she has to tell Jack about the outside world.

In a harrowing sequence, Jack is able to be smuggled out of Room and is able to jump out of Old Nick’s pickup truck and give a message to some neighbors. The police get involved, and they are able to find Ma’s location and rescue her. Ma is relieved, but Jack doesn’t understand that he’s never going to go back to Room – it’s the only home he’s ever known, what do you mean they’re never going back? What about all the toys and mementos from his childhood?

The rest of the book shows how traumatizing it can be for someone to get integrated into the world when they’ve been isolated for their entire life. Jack struggles a lot to reconcile what he’s only known to the reality: that there are a lot of experiences he’s missed out on, like grandparents, and dogs, and making friends, and cousins, and paying for things at a store.

Ma – or Joy, as we find out her name once she’s released from Room – also has a hard time reintegrating into her world. In the seven years that she’s been missing, her parents have divorced. Her father thought she was dead, and he can’t quite come to terms with the fact that not only is Joy not dead, but she was repeatedly raped, and also, her son is a reminder of his failings as a father: he was unable to protect his little girl. Her mother has remarried, and now Joy has to be nice to a person who has usurped her father’s role as head of the family. Joy also has to alleviate her guilt that she now feels about being too gullible or stupid to have fallen for Old Nick’s trick in the first place.

There’s a lot of emotions going on in the book, and it’s very interesting because again, the entire book is written from Jack’s perspective. Once I knew what the book was about (because yes, I totally read the synopsis on Wikipedia before getting too far into it – I am Harry Burns, after all), I was worried that I’d put it down or the writing style would make it difficult for me to get through.

I read the dang book in three days. I can’t remember the last time I read a book so quickly. I started reading it on a Thursday night – I think it was a Thursday night; maybe it was Friday. Anyway, I started reading it around 11 so I could fall asleep; fast-forward to two hours later, and I’ve read ninety pages and I’m still wide awake. (I think it was a Friday night, because if it was a Thursday I would have been pissed about losing sleep before a workday.) And I was finished with it by that Monday.

How did it compare to the film? I thought the film adaptation was very close to the book. Obviously, it cut some things out, but what they cut out didn’t impact the plot at all. As this was the first book I read in the Level Up project, I didn’t have anything to compare it to, but I thought the adapting of the book to the film was very well-done.

(Then I remembered that the author herself wrote the screenplay; so, duh. That makes total sense.)

Also, Brie Larson was totally deserving of her Best Actress Oscar. And I’ve said it before and I know I’ll say it again: it’s a fucking shame that Jacob Tremblay wasn’t nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for playing Jack, because a) he was phenomenal and b) he acted fucking circles around Leonardo Di-fucking-Caprio. Goddammit.

Grade for Room: 4 stars

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