When Emma Donoghue’s Room was chosen as one of the Times Best Books of 2010, I moved it off the top of my pile of To Be Reads. The Times has a knack for awarding that distinction to a writer’s less interesting work; they did it with the novels of Mary Gaitskill and Lorrie Moore, both of whom have chalked up spectacular short story collections. The novels, Veronica and A Gate at the Stairs respectively, were good but hardly transcendent. On top of that, Room joins that clinking clanking collection of caliginous junk by former Oprah scorner (and now mystically adored by Oprah; everyone needs to be a bottom now and then) J Franzen. Finally, books told in the voices of children, particularly children trapped in a small environment, don’t exactly beckon. What if it’s super cute? Bathetic? (Clearly, projecting Franzen onto Donoghue.)
Churlish of me, because I loved, loved, loved the one Donoghue book I had read, Slammerkin, and had always meant to read the writer’s other work. Slammerkin came out in what seemed to be the Year of the British Prostitute from Some Era More Interesting Than Our Own. The Crimson Petal and the White, an ambitious,700+ page tome that may have come with its own magnifying glass, was published at around the same time. Slammerkin was a quantum leap better. Donoghue based it on a fragment that she found about a real murder case, and produced an empathetic, deep dive into the dirt of the period, creating a memorable and tragic but never pathetic protagonist, Mary. What I especially loved was the detail she used to describe the colonial-era period clothing, which Mary has a knack for sewing. Donoghue completely gets the power of fashion: what it says about not just the wearer, but the designers and constructors and time in which was produced. She also deeply understands what women have gone through in different eras, and makes clear that the road, far from over, has taken a hell of a lot of courage to traverse so far.
That’s evidently clear in The Sealed Letter. Based again on an actual trial, this one concerns a notorious case from the dawn of divorce history – which, in England, only kicked off in the late 19th century. I’m finding divorce to be annoying and alien, but no more; at the time and place of this novel, it is a horrific ordeal, particularly for the woman. But what is so glorious about this book is that, by shifting viewpoints between the wife, husband, and a third party, we see that it’s not just a gynocentric sob story. Donoghue makes it clear that everyone suffered, in different ways, under the suffocating weight of British propriety, empire (she’s Irish), and class and gender morés.
Thing is, she never preaches. She’s so skilled at evoking period and making characters breathe that you forget you’re learning more than you could from any lecture or non-fiction book. It’s true that her books don’t give you huge meaty topics and questions that you debate into the night. They’re just enormously satisfying reads, the kind you look forward to at the end of the day, beautifully-crafted escape lit for eggheads.
So, Room, which I just finished. In 4 days (after letting it sit for two and a half weeks on the nightstand, after waiting for it for 2 months from the library). It’s not period, it’s contemporary; Dora the Explorer and Google both figure into it. It’s not told in a woman’s voice. Donoghue doesn’t site a specific case on which she based the story, though there are ready parallels.
The story couldn’t be simpler, but pulling off an entire narrative in a kid’s voice is tricky and risks being cloying. This unsentimental writer captures the cadence and logic of childhood wonderfully. Yet throughout, even though the p.o.v. never shifts, we begin to watch the child as if we are the mother, feeling her fears and grief powerfully. In many ways, she’s the book’s soul, and her ferocity and extraordinary resourcefulness keep the proceedings from descending into bathos, horror, or sentimentality, all of which might potentially ooze near the subject like quicksand. The midpoint of the book is almost unbearably suspenseful; we know, just as she does, everything that can go wrong and desperately want it to go right. I cheered for this odd couple as if my life depended on it; not often that happens in a novel.
Donoghue gives us exactly the right amount of time to experience each part of the story. She gracefully answered all the questions that came to my mind. I admit to a couple of minor disconnects in the narrative, rare moments where I was jarred out of the story, but they didn’t jar hard enough to impact the power of the reading at large. With all kinds of potential to become something cuddly, Room retains a power to unsettle, to not go to easy places. The reading group with whom I read Slammerkin found the main character to be unsympathetic. That was exactly why I liked her. Donoghue is never afraid to keep it real. I think she’s incapable of making it false.