Emma Donoghue's amazing ventriloquism in Room. 

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 3 2010 6:31 AM

What Jack Didn't Know

Emma Donoghue's amazing ventriloquism in Room. 

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That question echoes through the novel's second half, counterpointed by Ma's equally urgent demand: How can I make you understand that I am not enough for you, either? Every parent knows the dance of disengagement that takes place as children grow up, the back-and-forth pattern of footwork that nudges a bond based on dependency and devotion toward a relationship of greater independence and equality. Donoghue choreographs this disorienting pas de deux with striking originality, and as she traces Jack and Ma's contentious two-step, her impressive feat of literary ventriloquism is transmuted into a powerfully empathetic work of art.

Outside is overwhelming for Jack. Shoes hurt his feet; sunshine hurts his eyes; everything is so loud. The familiar objects left behind in Room have bewildering multiple counterparts in the psychiatric clinic where he and Ma are sent to recuperate. How can there be so many toilets, beds, and watches? And there are all these new things: windows, stairs, grass. It's terrifying. "I don't like it when you're in and I'm out," Jack wails outside the stall of a mysterious waterworks that isn't Bath. "I'm just trying to enjoy my first shower in seven years," she says wearily. Whiny kid, irritated parent: Again, Donoghue captures a strange situation giving rise to common human emotions.

But the trauma Ma endured and the challenges she faces are uncommon and agonizing. Donoghue sensitively provides only sidelong looks at her turmoil as she redefines her bond with a son who for five years has been her entire reason for living. The fact that we sense, but don't know for sure what she thinks or feels gives the novel its painful poignancy. A ghastly television interview Ma reluctantly undergoes—she needs the money—makes it clear that anything she says merely provides fodder for the salacious media and its titillated audience, dying for the gruesome details Ma (and the author) refuses to provide. Some stories are too terrible to be shared. Donoghue's ethical decision to respect Ma's privacy is also an artistic one: We can see the most important things about her story by seeing the results of it—her son, frightened and angry, but stronger than he knows, because for five years she made of her hell a heaven for him.

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Slowly, tentatively, Jack learns to deal with Outside and with separations from Ma. He persuades her to take a cathartic step toward recovery that scares her the way Outside scares him, echoing the words she used when he didn't want to leave Room: "I'm choosing for both of us." We see this final scene, as always, through Jack's eyes; Ma's voice is muted, her thoughts opaque. Donoghue does not presume to imagine her internal struggles, and this discretion, paradoxically, enables us to fully appreciate Ma's resilience, undistracted by tabloid horror-mongering. Once again, Donoghue fulfills the imperative that drives all her work: to honor stories that have not been told by finding the best way to tell them.

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Wendy Smith is a contributing editor at the American Scholar and writes regularly for the book review sections of the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune.

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