Why don’t child narrators work? After being labeled Ms Angry Pants during a good-natured but heated Book Club debate I feel compelled to answer this question in fuller form, without the dulling effects of that second glass of wine and blissfully free from interjections from my dear friend Sophie (the comments section is all yours babe).
So moving right along. The issue of child narrators is central to any review of “Room” (well, it’s central to my review anyway) because if you can’t believe the voice of the 5 year old narrator there IS no story – other than the one about the author attempting to channel (badly) the thoughts, feelings and observations of a completely inauthentic, not to mention annoying, young boy. The child himself is the product of rape by the nefarious “Old Nick” who kidnapped his mother, then aged 19 years old, and kept her in total isolation in a windowless shed measuring 11×11 for 7 years. If you think that’s gruesome, cast your mind back (or Google) Elisabeth Fritzl, on which this book was loosely “inspired”. So, after a suitably far-fetched escape from “Room”, Jack’s astute observances of the new world into which he is thrust serve to highlight, very unsubtly, all the idiosyncratic ills and contradictions of modern society. And then Donoghue won a sh#@ load of recognition. That’s a great story.
But it’s not THE story though, is it. So why was the child narrator so inauthentic, and why does it matter?
Well first of all, fiction has to be believable. I understand that that’s a contradiction in terms, but it’s simply the nature of the beast. Moreover it’s the beauty of fiction. It’s about potential; it’s about escape; it’s about tricking your mind so you can walk on through the wardrobe and into Narnia. You, the reader, must cease to exist – the author must not be heard. More than wanting to believe that events could have occurred and occurred in the exact manner described, I want fiction that convinces me the events actually did happen. Anyone can make a story up, after all, but the skill is in having you, the reader, believe it’s REAL. To believe the characters actually existed.
A child narrator therefore has to be one of the hardest voices to nail – I mean, what material have you got to work with? I would hazard a guess that my own 5 year old child’s internal monologues, for example, closely resemble her dialogues – which go something like “Muuuuum, Liam stole my biscuit”. Sure, every now and again she hints at something slightly higher order going on beneath the surface (“He doesn’t mean to be naughty Mum, he just can’t help himself”). But this wee boy Jack, the same age, is a kid who we’re to believe can read newspaper articles with words like “awakened” and “exclusive” in them, even though his lens on the world is largely filtered by the teachings of Dora the Explorer. And don’t get me started on the things he observes – his wisdom about the unusual ways of the outside world (portrayed as innocence) is patronising to the point of nausea.
Many people seem happy to attribute this quiet brilliance to the fact of his seclusion; the intense one on one nature of his relationship with his mother and her determined efforts to bring her child up sheltered from the brutality of their existence and with as much “normality” as the circumstances would allow. It is this unique upbringing that the reader is to believe caused Jack to be SO different from your average 5 year old – i.e. apt in sophisticated maths sums, capable of reading and spelling at a level most teenagers have not yet attained, and having a sound grasp of historical facts despite believing the world to be a made-up place. But I would argue that this unique upbringing, which consisted of a TV, a few books and his mother’s influence, would likely have made him less not more academically brilliant. And constant references to “Rug”, “Room”, “TV” etc as personal pronouns, when his Ma didn’t do the same, just made him sound like a 38 year old mimicking a 5 year old (oh yeah, that’s what it is).
And beyond that, was there any attempt to deal with the effects of the psychological damage “Ma” would have suffered after 7 years in isolation (remembering that the child was the off-spring of the abhorrent man responsible for raping, kidnapping and beating her repeatedly)? Did she have any conflicted feelings at all? Yes, she may have; occasionally she would retreat into a shell and not get out of bed. And she clearly drew strength from her spiritual beliefs. But for the most part she remained the balanced, calm, loving and doting mother most of us could only aspire to be – and this at only 21 years of age, in a room measuring 11×11, with no family, no possessions, no stimulation, no hope.
So am I worthy of the title Ms Angry Pants? Perhaps. I am definitely annoyed AND embarrassed at having bought this book not once but thrice (on the basis of the title “Book Club book of the year 2011” I gifted it to friends before I’d read it). But all in all I’d sooner think of myself as disappointed. “Room” is a great premise for a story, the potential was there. I just think Donoghue was over-ambitious in thinking she could deliver it through the voice of a 5 year old. Why not eye-of-god? Or even Ma? Some say that the child’s voice was necessary because the alternative would have been too brutal (er, excuse me, the facts of the story remain the same – sensitivity in dealing with them is not automatic based on whom you choose to tell it).
In summary, I had a long, long way to go before I had any hope of letting go; of walking through that wardrobe into Narnia. All I could hear was Donoghue – clomping noisily across the stage with a large cardboard cut-out of a small boy, throwing words out like an amateur ventriloquist.