Stimulus: Emma Donoghue – Room
It takes some serious imagination and talent to make one of the most disturbing elements of a tale chronicling years of imprisonment and rape the act of breastfeeding. This goes hand in hand with the fact that this tale of extreme abuse is told through the perspective of Jack, the wide-eyed and wonderful five year old boy who was born in this prison and who has never left its confines. Considering that the only people he’s known are his mother and their captor, that he hasn’t been weaned – and is obsessively against the idea – is perhaps understandable. But it’s the language he uses in describing the act which gives it its unsettling quality. In Room, the word “some” means milk, and Jack refers to “having some” as casually as an outsider would describe drinking a glass of water. Rarely has a literary euphemism been used to creepier effect.
This is all in keeping with the greater theme, which is the mutual incomprehension between Jack and the outside world. That outside world, it should be noted, includes the reader, whose cultural solipsism, along with those of Jack’s fictional outside world, is bound to clash with the solipsism of the young prisoner.
At Room’s beginning, Jack is a creature who knows so little of what lies beyond the borders of his prison that he is certain that nothing else exists. This delusion is so complete that he views the television programs he watches as not a series of real elements coming together to form a show but entirely unreal fabrications. He doesn’t believe that trees exist, or other people, or events. As the world is increasingly made real to him, Jack’s sense of routine and habit spirals out of control, and in fact he begins to idealize his imprisonment.
It’s at the points of contact where the reader will feel the most conflict with Jack. It’s easy to sympathize with the victim when in his prison, locked away from the so-called right ideas and behaviors. One does what one must to survive, after all. But once in the so-called real world, Jack’s oddness suddenly becomes unhealthy and disruptive. When he can’t adapt to the spoken and unspoken expectations and standards of a culture he only recently found, he ceases to be seen as a victim and becomes a brat. It was so hard to read this book and not feel a sense of self-reproach as the frustration with Jack builds.
Ultimately, Room is a tale against absolutes and complacent certainty, a brilliant and unique tale of confinement that illuminates the restraints of all who watch.