Room By Emma Donoghue
"Today I'm five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I'm changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero. Was I minus numbers?"
With that pitch-perfect opening paragraph, Emma Donoghue leads us into the extraordinary, dark and compelling world that is Room, her Man Booker prize short-listed story of a mother and child, known as Ma and Jack, imprisoned in a specially converted 11x11ft garden shed.
Much has been made of Donoghue's use of the Josef Fritzl case as a source of inspiration for this book, but its obvious literary antecedent is actually John Fowles' equally chilling The Collector, with which it shares not only the physical details of an appalling incarceration but some challenging psychological insights into the minds of captor and captives.
There is no evidence of Stockholm syndrome here, in which captives develop an emotional attachment to their captor. Ma bitterly hates "Old Nick" for his nightly visits, when Jack counts the creaks of the bed, and would be quite prepared to torture him if she thought there were any chance of getting the combination to the key pad that locks them in. But her priority is Jack's safety and survival, and the risk of antagonising Old Nick is too high, as he demonstrates when he turns off their electricity for a few days after a perceived misdemeanour.
Jack is five. His mother was captured and imprisoned when she was 19. Effectively she is the sex slave of Old Nick who "cares" for them with a grudging generosity: "I'm just the grocery boy, take out your trash ... at your service ma'am".
His is a world without morality, characterised only by inner emptiness. He has convinced himself that mother and child are treated well and should be grateful to him for all he does for them. The warped logic is quietly terrifying.
But let's get back to that opening paragraph. Donoghue has made the brave and risky decision to use Jack as the sole narrator of the book. It is a decision fraught with danger: child narrators are so easily twee, arch or sentimental.
Jack is none of these, and the world view taught to him by his mother is utterly convincing within its own extraordinary context. Their room is their everywhere. For Jack, what appears on TV is sited in Outer Space. All the objects within their room are capitalised (Mirror, Sink, Bed, Wardrobe, Skylight) because they are unique. Beyond the four reinforced walls there is no wider world, only other planets. It is a simple but effective device that allows Jack a distinctive and, ultimately, haunting voice.
Despite its disturbing subject matter, Room balances its inherent bleakness with warmth and humanity. Jack clearly loves his mother almost to the point of obsession and she, in turn, has gone to extraordinary lengths to care for Jack. She has taught him to read and he is gifted with numbers. They do daily exercises to keep fit. She encourages him to eat as well as Old Nick's provisions allow. But just as important as the physical care is the emotional and intellectual bond between mother and child portrayed so well through their shared reading, storytelling, word games and the few activities the space will allow.
In Donoghue's own words: "Room is no horror story or tearjerker but a celebration of resilience and the love between parent and child."
There are hints in the final section that Room also has a metaphorical significance. "The inner child trapped in our personal Room 101," says one TV pundit in the book. "Of course Kaspar Hauser (a German who said he had grown up in a darkened cell) famously claimed that he had been happy in his dungeon, but perhaps he really meant that 19th-century German society was just a bigger dungeon," counters another. Yet despite the clearly facetious nature of this exchange, Donoghue is on record as saying that she sees the book "not just as a realistic novel but an allegory of childhood and motherhood".
Be that as it may, most readers will take from Room the most extraordinary experience of complete immersion in an alternative and disturbing world created with the utmost realism.
As a fictional recreation of childhood it is remarkable and might just end up as this year's surprise Booker winner. Whatever the verdict, I doubt a better novel will be published this year - or one that lingers so long in the memory.
l The winner of the Man Booker prize for 2010 will be announced on Tuesday[QQ] [BX] The verdict 1010
About the author Emma Donoghue
Emma Donoghue was born in Ireland in 1969 and studied at University College Dublin and Cambridge University. Her previous novels include The Sealed Letter, Landing and Touchy Subjects. She lives in Canada with her partner and their son and daughter.
MY LIFE IN BOOKS
Toby Percival teaches classics at Shrewsbury School
What I'm reading now
I've just finished The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. I thought it was fantastic: it was a really refreshing take on the cultural and class situation in India. It was easy to read, but at the same time quirky and riveting.
The book I loved as a child
I worked in a bookshop as a teenager and somebody there put me on to Louis de Bernieres' South American trilogy: The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts, Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord and The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal
Guzman. I think they are far better than Captain Corelli's Mandolin. They are incredibly well written: they are about characters and places, but they are also a bit irreverent. They are like no other books I have ever read.
Read this before you die
As a classics teacher, I think I would be shot if I didn't say something classical. I've read Virgil's The Aeneid in Latin and English, and it has got everything: a fantastic storyline, real character development, fighting and romance. You see real (linguistic) style, even in English translations. It has also inspired so many other authors: a great deal of modern literature has its roots in The Aeneid. But it's very accessible. It is a book I think anyone can read and appreciate.