By Ron Charles
Wednesday, September 15, 2010; C01
By Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown. 321 pp. $24.99
Everything about Emma Donoghue's "Room" sounds mawkish and sadistic, as though she's arriving late to the popular genre of child-abuse thrillers that Maureen Corrigan recently lamented in our pages. But don't bother if those lurid books are your thing, and please keep reading if you'd enjoy one of the most affecting and subtly profound novels of the year.
You'll recognize the premise of "Room" from several sensational news stories, including the horrific experience of Elisabeth Fritzl, the Austrian woman who was imprisoned by her incestuous father in a makeshift dungeon for 24 years. Using these reports as grim inspiration, Donoghue has invented the abduction of a 19-year-old college student, who's been kept in a soundproof garden shed for seven years. The room has a hot plate and a sink, a toilet and a television. Her captor brings her enough food to survive, disciplines her by cutting off electricity and heat, and rapes her several times a week. This is, as I said, a story I cannot imagine having any interest in reading.
Except that it's told by the woman's 5-year-old son.
Jack has lived his entire life in the 11-foot-square room, and his mother has devoted every moment to creating a realm for him that's safe and enchanting. Although he's preternaturally observant, he rarely sees the scary man -- Old Nick -- who makes his mother's bed creak at night while he's "switched off in Wardrobe." Restricted to Jack's vision, we don't see much of Old Nick either, although we overhear him tell Ma, "I don't think you appreciate how good you've got it here. . . . Plenty girls would thank their lucky stars for a setup like this." While the story is sometimes terrifying, Donoghue consistently de-emphasizes Old Nick, a strategy that reflects Jack's limited perspective but also demonstrates that she has no intention of trafficking in the sexual charge of abduction thrillers.
Instead, the novel stays focused on Jack's elemental pleasures and unsettling questions. With the few items at her disposal, Ma has developed the pleasant routines of their day: Phys Ed and Simon Says, Orchestra and Labyrinth, Bath and Hum. "We have thousands of things to do every morning," Jack says, "like give Plant a cup of water in Sink for no spilling, then put her back on her saucer on Dresser. . . . I count one hundred cereal and waterfall the milk that's nearly the same white as the bowls, no splashing, we thank Baby Jesus." Determined not to rely too much on the TV, Ma makes sure that Jack is fluent in stories from the Bible, Shakespeare and Mother Goose, whose tropes and characters mingle comically in his imagination.
He's pale and small, with an undeveloped immune system and the strange muted voice of someone who's spoken only to his mother in the dead silence of their cell. But like some child-version of Henry David Thoreau, Jack lives in a state of open-faced delight with the simple objects of Room. And it takes nothing away from the injustice and horror of their circumstances to appreciate the sustaining philosophy these two survivors have developed.
For such a peculiar, stripped-down tale, it's fantastically evocative. Moving beyond those lurid news stories, one thinks of the thousands of prisoners around the world condemned to solitary confinement, those desperate Chilean miners half-a-mile underground, or Kaspar Hauser, the 19th-century German boy who grew up in total isolation. Perseus, remember, was born to an imprisoned mother, too, and others will catch the parallels to Roberto Benigni's "Life Is Beautiful," about a father's efforts to entertain his son in a Nazi camp. But Ma isn't trying to deceive Jack or distract him so much as help him make a practical, hopeful life in an extraordinarily constricted situation.
We meet Jack on his fifth birthday, just before Easter, when his mother begins revealing to him the outlandish idea that there's a world beyond their tiny cell. "My head's going to burst from all the new things I have to believe," he says. It's like trying to explain that most of life actually takes place in the fourth dimension. Imagine describing "skies or fireworks or islands or elevators or yo-yos" to someone who conceives of the universe as a sparsely furnished, 11-foot cube. Jack experiences a little Copernican revolution before our eyes, and it's alternately frightening and inspiring to witness, a reminder of just how much we overlook. "When I was a little kid I thought like a little kid," he says in an echo of fellow prisoner Saint Paul, "but now I'm five I know everything."
We see Ma only in Jack's adoration, but clearly she's an extraordinary woman, setting aside her own anguish to nurture the joy that Jack takes in their little world. As unspeakable and bizarre as their plight is, how many new mothers have felt the anguish of Ma, trapped in a room with a small child they love but desperately need time away from? How can she broach the subject of escape without shattering Jack's perfect harmony? And how will Ma ever establish the separation that must take place for Jack to develop into his own person, to comprehend the startling fact that he's not the only other person who exists?
The Irish-born Donoghue has written eccentric, otherworldly stories before ("Slammerkin" is probably her best known), but "Room" -- shortlisted for the Booker Prize last week -- should appeal to an even larger audience. Not too cute, not too weirdly precocious, not a fey mouthpiece for the author's profundities, Jack expresses a poignant mixture of wisdom, love and naivete that will make you ache to save him -- whatever that would mean: Delivering him to the outside world? Keeping him preserved here forever? I haven't been ripped up like this by a novel since Kiara Brinkman's "Up High in the Trees," about a little boy with Asperger's trying to grasp his mother's death. But until you finish it, beware talking about "Room" with anyone who might clumsily strip away the suspense that's woven through its raw wonder. You need to enter this small, harrowing place prepared only to have your own world expanded.
Charles is the fiction editor at The Post. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.