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What I’m Reading

By Jenni Frangos

The chair of the English department I taught in before coming to UMKC used to give a speech to the undergraduate English group in which he encouraged them to make reading a way of life, to read things not assigned for class, and to talk about what they were reading. He would include a note on his personal webpage about what he had just finished reading, what he was reading now, and what he was going to read next. In that spirit, then, here’s what I’m reading.

Emma Donoghue. Room: A Novel. Little, Brown and Company, 2010 (cloth). Back Bay Books, 2011 (paper).

This is a fascinating novel from one of my favorite writers—I’ll read anything she writes, from fiction to lesbian history; my favorite, though is Kissing the Witch (1999), which retells European fairy tales from a woman-centered and feminist perspective. Room is definitely something to read in one sitting if you can; I read it over a few nights, as I was going to bed, and found myself staying up later than was good for me, falling asleep while reading even, because I couldn’t put it down. The novel is told from the perspective of 5-year-old Jack, who has spent his entire life in an 11 x 11–foot room with his Ma. Readers realize fairly quickly that Ma’s experience of this room is quite different from Jack’s: she was kidnapped from her college campus and is held captive by a man referred to as Old Nick, whereas for Jack, this room is his entire world, all he has ever known.

Jack is a compelling narrator, and Donoghue strikes the right balance between Jack’s description of his day-to-day life and the ironic distance understood by an adult reader. He watches TV, but knows that it is all fake—smart kid, we think; we slowly come to realize, however, that Ma has told him that nothing outside of Room is real. All those people on the TV do not exist. Outside the locked door is only Outer Space. Ma and Jack are the only people in the world. One of the most touching details of the novel is the way that Ma has created a safe and structured world for Jack within the room, complete with Phys Ed (Jack’s choice of activities like Karate, Eye Stretch, or Island, which means moving around the room without touching the floor), story time, ongoing craft projects like the snake under the bed made out of egg shells, green beans whether he likes them or not, and bed by 9 (before Old Nick’s occasional visits).

Most reviews of this novel describe only the beginning, so if you don’t want some of the plot spoiled, stop reading here.

I find the changes Ma and Jack face in the second half of the book to be quite interesting. She first has to convince Jack that there is a world outside of their room, and people, as well as things he has never seen on TV, which means admitting that she has lied to him. They do escape from Room—I’ll let you read the book for yourself to find out how they manage it—and are taken to a hospital where a team of doctors and psychiatrists help them to adapt. Ma (we never learn her real name, though Jack is forced to understand that she has one, and that she has a Ma of her own) has to remember how to be the person she was before her kidnapping, how to work through the trauma she has experienced, how to be Jack’s mother but also someone else. This is all filtered through Jack’s limited understanding, and he in many ways resists letting her be anything but his mother, but it powerfully illustrates the problem of negotiating the conflicting identities inherent in contemporary parenthood. She reunites with her family and has to deal with their resignation, years before, that she was probably dead, with her parents’ divorce and her mother’s remarriage. She finds herself suddenly in the spotlight, as the news media latch onto her story; she gets a lawyer and begins to prepare to face Old Nick in court. None of this is easy, and she doesn’t handle all of it well, but the same strength and resourcefulness that got her through years of captivity and made Room a safe and fun place for Jack’s first five years kicks in as she and Jack get their first apartment (three rooms this time) and begin to make a list of things they want to do.

Touching, powerful, horrifying, and hopeful.

Up next is a book recommended by a colleague who read it in her book club: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn. The description of it reminds me of a book I read several years ago that was disturbing yet so engrossing that I couldn’t put it down: All the Beautiful Sinners by Stephen Graham Jones. Set in Tornado Alley, it’s about the hunt for a serial killer who abducts children, a boy and a girl, right after a storm has gone through town.