The question I would have asked Emma Donoghue

I just got back from a weekend away in Norwich scouting whether or not Norwich will be a nice place to relocate to in two years time when relocation is something we are going to do. At no point did we hear anyone talk loudly about shooting or stabbing anyone, which did happen the evening before we went in our current homestead, so that bodes well. But of all the nice things about Norwich, of which there were many, the one that really clinched it for me was seeing the flyer advertising that the Norwich Waterstones was hosting an evening with Emma Donoghue, author of Room, one of last years Booker prize short-list. This never happens in the town I currently live in. Unfortunately for me Emma Donoghue’s visit to Norwich was not going to happen until a few days after I was there, so I had no chance at all of going. I’m not sure if she was just doing a reading or a q+a, but had it been a q+a, and had I been able to go, I know what question I would have asked.

Room was one of the short-listed Booker nominees I fancied reading when the list was announced last year but it wasn’t until it turned up in a 3 for 2 that I actually bought it. The other two books I bought at the same time were Life of Pi and The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. Of those three books Room was the last I read. The thing that was putting me off was the idea of a five year old protagonist being written in the first person. I was worried it was going to be tedious, with phonetic misspellings (a pet hate) and a point of view I wouldn’t be able to relate to. This turned out not to be the case at all. Jack – the five year old protagonist – has bad grammar but excellent vocabulary, and his inability not to understand things didn’t stop him from verbalising them. This turned out to be the source of some of the books most powerful moments, where the reader is privy to a larger, more sinister understanding of events that Jack is naively expressing.

Room is about a boy born in a room that he never leaves until he turns five. As far as he is concerned that room is the entire world. It’s a world without plurality. His rug is Rug, rather than ‘a rug’ or ‘the rug’ or ‘my rug’. Naturally then Jack is a character who has had a stunted development. His view of reality is massively restricted and leaving the room suddenly reveals the stark truth about just how insular his life up to then has been. But other aspects of his intellectual development are written as being more advanced than a child of a comparable age. He surprises doctors with his vocabulary and numeracy.

As I was reading the book I imagined that this duality of his cognitive development, on one hand massively restricted, on the other surprisingly advanced, was a product of a kind of sense balance. Much like the way that a blind person develops excellent hearing, the muscle you are able to exercise becomes extremely potent while the one you can’t withers. Jack has so little to focus his attention on that it is perhaps no surprise that he becomes very good at that which he can.

But it seemed remarkably convenient that Jack had this advanced linguistic ability because without it the book would have suffered from what I was initially worried it might. There is a history of advanced young protagonists in literature. It’s endearing and interesting to read and, conveniently for the writer, provides a vehicle for contemplative and insightful writing. The average five year old wouldn’t provide that. In fact there is a minor character in Room that is such an average five year old. There’s a reason that character doesn’t have her own novel, there wouldn’t be much to read about. There seems to be a balance to be struck in all writing between the nuts-and-bolts of the craft – the process of putting words on a page that are coherent and interesting and relevant – and the larger ideas and themes that that same writing is trying to explore. Room would be a wholly different book if Emma Donoghue had, in order to facilitate a capable narrator, made him eleven rather than five, or given his mother the task of narrating the story.

So this is the question I would have wanted to ask Emma Donoghue. Were these areas of Jacks intellect advanced to allow for an interesting voice with which to tell this particular story or was it an intrinsic point of the story as a whole?

2 thoughts on “The question I would have asked Emma Donoghue

  1. Very thought provoking post. Having read Room
    and loved it, with one or two irritations along the way, this is one question I hadn’t really considered – although, I put off reading it initially for the same reason as you. For me, the weaker part of the book was post escape, it felt slightly rushed and in places, too convient. Great post.

  2. Hi there. I quite agree about the irritatingly frequent occurrence of child-prodigy narrators in literature today. Even a book I really liked, Nancy Huston’s FAULT LINES, is narrated by a series of genius five-year-olds. But I would argue that Jack is different; his thoughts are really no more complicated than any five-year-olds that I know (and I based him on my son, who was five while I was writing the book), he just has more ability to tell a story, because of the intensive education he has received. One blogger has run ROOM through a search engine which assesses the linguistic level of prose, and came up with a label of 7-year-old. What I’m saying, I suppose, is that Jack’s English – with its extensive vocabulary as well as its messy grammar – is my attempt to be true to what such a child would be like; it certainly wasn’t just a trick for making it easier to write the novel. All the best – Emma

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