This was a novel that I thought I would never read. When I heard all the hype and the fuss about it last year, I found myself entirely mistrustful of the scenario, with its sordid echoes of Josef Fritzl and all the other maniacs out there who do mind-bendingly despicable things to the people they love. I was afraid that it was the literary equivalent of Tom Hanks winning the Oscar for Forrest Gump, a novel that went to the dark places in order to be sensational and then sentimental about them.
But I was given a copy of the book at Christmas and when I was going to call on the friend who gave it to me, I thought it would be nice to have at least made a start on it. She had told me she wanted an honest review and didn’t mind whether I loved it or hated it – she was curious to know herself what I thought. It’s pretty much impossible for me to talk about this book without giving away what happens over its course; I won’t call them spoilers because a) so much is known about this book already and b) you can’t really read this for plot. But if you’re planning on reading it and want it to be a surprise, then you should be warned.
The book opens in the world of young Jack who is celebrating his fifth birthday with his mother, known as Ma. Their world is a confined one, a twelve by twelve foot space every inch of which is intimately known to Jack and personalised. Wardrobe, where he sleeps at night, Bed, Plant, down to the small objects like Meltedy Spoon are all anthropomorphised to some degree, named and addressed like people, loved like family members. There’s a television, which Jack’s mother is as hot as any middle-class mum to ration, and for the rest of their entertainment, Ma has been remarkably resourceful in finding games to play out of the daily domestic chores and their limited materials. Jack is happy and contented with his world, but it’s evident that Ma has the tougher deal. She’s suffering from severe dental decay and clearly in thrall to Old Nick, the man Jack never sees, but whom he understands to bring the food they need and to visit his mother at night.
This first part is narrated by Jack, in his five-year-old voice, and at first I did not think I could put up with it. Jack is clearly precocious in some ways, but the linguistic errors he makes are not ones usually associated with five year olds. ‘What that man doing’ is the sort of question he might ask, which fell all wrong on my ears as auxiliary verbs are not usually the missing elements of small children’s speech, as basic grammar is quickly mastered. But Emma Donoghue goes to some pains to make this section as easy to read as possible, and I admired the inventiveness with which she had imagined their incarceration. The restraint with which she depicts Jack’s mother and the adult sufferings and frustrations she has to undergo whilst doing her best to mother in these conditions felt very powerful.
But then the book took off for me in the second half, in which Jack and his Ma make it back out into the world. Just to show how subjective all reading is, I recently came across an article that named this novel as one of the ten biggest let-downs in terms of endings, and declared the second half to be more appropriate to a child development manual. I was astonished, given that I’d just read it and found the second part so compulsive that I really could not put the book down (and that doesn’t often happen these days). What’s fascinating (for me at least) in this second part is the way that the freedom of the world, so longed for by Jack’s mother, seems almost harsher and crueller at times than the captivity they’ve been forced to survive. Ma returns to parents who’ve had seven years to grieve for her, and to a media that want to turn her case into a circus, and she succumbs to the nervous reaction that is the inevitable consequence of being brave beyond reason for longer than possible. And of course, Jack struggles dreadfully to adapt.
The brilliance of this book for me is the way that Emma Donoghue so insightfully turns the situation on its head. Captivity was fun for Jack. It was so safe, so sufficient. With his mother all to himself and life arranged in pleasing (to him) routines, he could never miss what he’d never known (and Ma has told him that what he sees on television is all fantasy). Once he’s out in the world, he doesn’t like it. Everyone who’s been around toddlers knows how easily they get into trouble; well Jack is like a toddler cubed. The world is full of menaces and peculiarities (like bumble bees and paying for things in shops) that he’s never had to encounter before. An extreme kind of separation from his mother is forced upon him, with its attendant anxieties.
What I got out of the book in the end was not insight I didn’t want into the horrors some people have to endure at the hands of lunatics, but a more generalised truth: that children need and love the reduced microcosm they live in when young, the family ideology and its all-encompassing explanations, the little set routines. But when we become adults, that reduced world is what makes us ill and ill at ease. We have to break out and break away or risk claustrophobia and suffocation. But maybe there is a lingering romance with the conditions of childhood, and that is what Emma Donoghue taps into in that first section, the heroic mother who gives her all and saves her sanity by creating a room-sized world, in which she nourishes the extreme innocence of the child who is content within it. But I tell you, I couldn’t help but root for them to get out, and was thankful for the happy ending that the author slowly and cautiously draws them towards.