Among the many books that I have loved in my lifetime, very few of them have been contemporary fiction. The books I generally love, and reach for, are children’s fiction, YA, teen fantasy, history and myth, and—more recently—some of the more popular classics you would find on those lists of books that claim you must read these titles before you can be a real human being.
I am not a great believer in those lists.
But, as I said, contemporary fiction does not tend to interest me much. If there are no dragons, ancient forests, revolutions, pirate ships, or any other interesting elements, I usually set it back on the shelf. I especially tend to avoid books with coffee shops in them. Nothing interesting ever happens in a coffee shop. I know. I’ve been to many. Somehow Jean Valjean wading through the sewers of Paris carrying Marius’s limp body on his shoulders has always been more interesting to me than police chases, courtroom dramas, or coffee shop romances.
One of the few exceptions I’ve found to that ill-informed prejudice is Emma Donoghue’s Room. I picked this book up while I was traveling in Idaho, off a bookshelf that wasn’t mine and didn’t seem to have anything else on the floor to ceiling shelves that looked remotely interesting. I opened it up out of boredom and desperation, in other words, and found myself completely captivated by the story inside.
Room is the story of five year-old Jack, told in his words, seen through his eyes. Innocence and horror mingle seamlessly in this gorgeous, brilliantly conceived book, reflecting, almost, the naive inquisitiveness of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. As the pages flit past we begin to understand what Jack does not, why he and ‘Ma’ live alone in Room, why Door beeps before it opens, and why they are never allowed outside.
This heartrending and, at times, beautiful story of an abducted young woman imprisoned in a shed by her captor and abused nightly is brought to life by her son, Jack, who sees only hints of the horror hidden from him by his Ma. To him, Room is all there is. The walls of his world are—and always will be—covered in cork, Door will only ever open when ‘Old Nick’ comes at night, and his only window into the outside world is Skylight, which shows a patch of blue sky and occasionally a stray leaf. Trees and sidewalks, other people, dogs and kids, stores and houses are ‘TV’, not real, and his world instead revolves around Ma and the life she has with him.
The courage of Ma and the beauty of her ingenuity in creating an entire world to share with her son inside this eleven-by-eleven shed is what makes this book something really special. Their devotion to each other, the sacrifices they make to keep each other safe and, ultimately, to escape their modern day prison, is a story of hope and redemption amid a situation too horrible to imagine. Jack’s bravery in Room and outside of it is truly inspiring, and brings me back to this book time and time again.
In Wardrobe I can’t get to sleep. I sing quietly, “John Jacob Jingheimer Schmidt.” I wait. I sing it again.
Finally Ma answers. “His name is my name too.”
“Whenever I go out—”
“The people always shout—”
“There goes John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt—”