01 October, 2010

The Duchess Recommends . . .

Room, by Emma Donoghue

This weekend the Duchess read a truly extraordinary book.  This book -- Room, by Emma Donoghue -- is the talk of the literary town right now; the Los Angeles Times reviewed it Wednesday, and it was the cover of the New York Times Book Review last Sunday.  This press is not for nothing.  Room, short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, is the Duchess's favorite book of the year.

The plot is stirring but simple.  Room is written from the point of view of five year-old Jack, who lives in (precisely) a Room with his Ma.  His entire universe is contained in Room.  There's TV, where all people outside of Room live; there's Table; there's Plant; there's Rug; and there's Wardrobe, where Jack sleeps at night behind closet doors when Old Nick comes to visit Ma.  Jack has never been outside of Room, indeed, he was born there to Ma after Old Nick, who seven years before had kidnapped her as a college student and secreted her away to live in captivity, impregnated her.  As a result the unfathomingly myopic Room is Jack's only known world.  As the book unfolds Jack learns more and more about the world beyond Room, but the Duchess won't spoil the plot for you.

Reviewers have had their turns discussing the book's various, obvious elements:  the narration by a child; the social commentary on breastfeeding; the political commentary on young women hostages.  But what the Duchess found most universal about Room was the way it captured how narrowly we as humans can focus our thinking, and our understanding, and then how difficult it can be for us to adapt to new surroundings and concepts.  Through Jack, we see -- in a very endearing way -- a person whose universe is very small and sheltered.  As this universe grows larger, Jack struggles to adjust in natural ways.  He expects all rugs to feel and smell the same as Rug, for example.  Wearing shoes aggravates his feet.  These notions seem elemental to us all but the underlying principle is oft forgotten.  Change is tough.  And not always for the better, unless the person living through changes appreciates that the benefit of having more knowledge outweighs the discomfort of having one's world turned upside down. 

Perhaps this is why the Duchess voraciously devoured Room.  She recently left one of her own, and Outside isn't always what it was cracked up to be.  But the Duchess cannot imagine the alternative, and sometimes just knowing that is enough. 

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