Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Reading _Room_ by Emma Donoghue

by Mila D. Aguilar

If I've been silent for a day (on Facebook, that is), it's because I've been reading Room by Emma Donoghue, a novel about growing up as a child of a kidnapped young woman in a hermetically-sealed 11-by-11-foot room.

What got me interested in the book was the case of Elizabeth Fritzl, who had been kept for 24 years as a sex-slave in a dungeon in Austria by her father, emerging as a 42-year-old woman with seven children by him, one of whom died of illness after his gross neglect -- thereafter to be incinerated by him in a heating stove next to the dungeon.

I read and watched every bit of news about the Fritzls almost since the day it burst out in April of 2008 and am still on the lookout for whatever little piece of information I could get about the monster Josef Fritzl or his hapless though rescued daughter Elizabeth and six surviving children/grandchildren.

The book was touted at the conclusion of the Fritzl case as an offshoot of it.

Knowing all the juicy details about the Fritzl case, I got not a little disappointed with the novel. The beginning, and actually the whole perspective of the latter, is novel: it is told from the point of view of the child, who was born in the room and was taught by his mother, at five, how to escape from it and rescue her. He emerges as the novel's unknowing, unwilling and ever-unconscious hero -- superhero, in fact -- even leading her to her own closure by insisting on visiting the room for the last time.

It's a cute way of presenting a highly distressing, intriguing and gripping situation. He manages to escape from his captor, not having known anything about the outside world except what he had seen on TV in his five years in it, tell the police about his mother, and lead them, through a particularly alert and motherly police officer, to his mother, who has stayed in the Room waiting for the rescue.

The plot is well-done, gluing the reader to the novel up to the last sigh of relief, after all the goodbyes are done to every aspect of the tiny Room.

But presenting a situation from the eyes of a five-year-old child, no matter how proficiently, has its limitations.

The characters of the two other protagonists in the novel turn out flat in consequence. Old Nick, the kidnapper, who has kept Ma, Jack's mother, in the prison-room for seven years, cannot be elucidated. Of course, he is more like the kidnapper of Natasha Kampusch than Josef Fritzl, the other Austrian sex-slaver whom we never get to know because he killed himself upon his victim's escape. So perhaps we can forgive the lack of a rounded picture of Old Nick, though he for his part ends up in prison.

But Ma's sudden suicide attempt becomes as much of a conundrum to us as it is to Jack. It could very well happen in real life -- a 26-year-old mother who has brought up her son very well, teaching him not only to read and write but to do very good math as well as providing him with all the physical and vocal exercises she could within the limits of a hidden prison, could very well, after being rescued by him through her own plan, want to kill herself because of a bruising encounter with thoughtless media.

But then, taking into account her son's own narrative, it would seem that she almost deliberately planned the whole scenario for five years, waiting for the opportune moment for him to grow up. Why would she suddenly throw away all her efforts -- and her son's future -- just because of some media meddling?

It could be explained, of course -- as a sudden weakness in character built in even before her kidnapping -- but perhaps not from a little boy's viewpoint.

So what starts out as a cute device doesn't end up cute at all.

And we who know the Fritzl case begin to associate the novel with the true story.

In the true story, Felix, the youngest boy, is also five, and experiences the outside world in much the same way, with the same fascination and wonderment, and the same physical disabilities, described with just much more detail in the novel.

But in the true story, Elizabeth, the mother and incest victim, is heroic all the way. She is not known to have tried to kill herself after rescuing all her children from the clutches of her ogre of a father. And in the true story, we get a rather deep glimpse into the twisted psyche of Josef Fritzl besides.

What is the true story about, why is it so riveting?

It is able, in its most complicated true-to-life fashion, to portray the depths of depravity to which the human soul can descend, as well as the heights of hope, faith and love to which it can aspire.

Room cannot do that, not only because of the viewpoint it has chosen, but because the author herself, by all accounts (see her video), lacks the perspicacity and depth to see these dimensions.

So Room becomes exactly what she intended it to be -- a novel about child development, unfortunately comparable to the Fritzl and, to a minor extent, Kampusch stories because of the many elements she borrowed from both -- without acknowledging it, by the way, in her final book.

Which is a shame. Reading Room is like reading the novels of Paolo Coelho, which I could not for the life of me appreciate. Both make for extremely popular (because, I suspect, easy) reading. Both try but fail to make some meaningful literarily profound statement about life (though Coelho tries harder and literally does, in essay fashion -- in fact he's quoted rather widely on it).

And both will not, I am afraid, outlast this century.

So now let me go back to my Dostoevsky, which I've been trying to re-read without much success on my smartphone -- the same type of device I used to read, with ease, both Room and Coelho.