Emma Donoghue, Room (2010)
Ray Robinson, Forgetting Zoë (2010)
The two novels I’m reviewing here weave beautiful tales from ugly subject matter: namely, the abduction and long-term captivity of children. Both are less concerned with plot than with character – the key question is not, ‘will they escape?’ but ‘what effect do these events have on the people involved?’ Whilst the process of uncovering the answers may be harrowing, it has resulted in two powerful works of literature.
Emma Donoghue’s Booker-shortlisted Room is narrated by five-year-old Jack, who has lived his entire life in the 121 square feet of Room, the space in which his mother (‘Ma’) has been held captive for the past seven years by a man whom she and Jack call ‘Old Nick’. As far as Jack is concerned, this space is all that exists; the novel progresses from establishing the parameters of Jack’s mental world, through Ma’s (successful) escape bid, to Jack’s attempts to adjust to life in an outside world that he didn’t know was real.
Jack’s narrative voice is critical to the success of Room; though I’ve heard a few people say they felt it stumbled at times, it mostly held up for me; the main quibble I’d have is that Jack continues to call the sun ‘God’s yellow face’ throughout the book, which didn’t convince me given what else he knows, and the influence of astronomical concepts on Jack’s mental framework (he thinks of TV programmes as ‘planets’). I also have a general, vague sense that Jack doesn’t seem quite as disoriented by the outside world as I might expect him to be; but, to be fair, I can’t put my finger on any specific instances to illustrate that.
(As an aside, it strikes me that the success or otherwise of Jack’s voice depends on what one considers the first-person narrative to be. I can see that Jack’s voice may be problematic if the text is considered a straightforward spoken/written/thought account; but, unless they indicate otherwise. I tend to think of first-person narratives as ‘impressions’ filtered through the medium of prose, which leads me to allow more latitude than I otherwise might.)
The character revealed through Jack’s narration has a convincing mixture of precocity and naivety: his education through television and Ma has given Jack knowledge beyond his years in some subjects, but he still has many misconceptions about the real world; Jack’s little linguistic quirks (for example, he doesn’t go to sleep, he ‘switches off’) serve as jarring reminders that we view the world of Donoghue’s novel through a distorting lens.
But Room’s real power, I think, lies in its gaps. There’s a gap between what has happened to Ma and what Jack understands; it’s up to us as readers to fill in that gap; so, for example, Jack’s comment, ‘I think Old Nick put those marks on [Ma’s] neck’ carries much more weight for us than it does for the boy.
Even more poignant, I think, than the gap between the reality of events and Jack’s perception of them, is the gap between who Ma is and who she might have been. She was kidnapped by Old Nick as a nineteen-year-old student; at times, such as when she tells Jack her story, we catch glimpses of the independent young woman she would probably have been in her early twenties – but that life is forever lost to her, because she became Jack’s Ma instead (symbolically, we never do learn her name; even though Jack sees it written down, he doesn’t reveal what it is). Ma’s life, like the novel, revolves around Jack; it’s a struggle for him to comprehend what’s happening when she tries to assert her individuality in the outside world. By novel’s end, however, there’s a sense that both Jack and Ma are ready to move on.
If Room is focused relentlessly inwards on Jack, then Ray Robinson’s Forgetting Zoë faces outwards, reaching across vast landscapes and into the lives of not just its abductee, but also her mother and her captor. In 1999, Thurman Hayes takes his mother’s body to Canada, where she grew up; whilst there, he abducts ten-year-old Zoë Nielsen. For the next eight years, Hayes keeps her captive in his ranch in the Arizona desert and its underground bunker; by the time she escapes, the girl Zoë was is a distant memory.
Robinson’s prose and characterisation in this novel are exquisite. Here, for example, is Thurman reflecting on his father’s hands:
…to Thurman the hands only ever spoke one word and that was hurt. They contained bones that had fractured many times and reset, broken against walls and furniture, the skulls of cattle, Mom, Thurman. Hands so masterful at gripping axes and shovels and carpentry tools and soldering irons, the stock of his rifle and shotgun. So useful for overturning a table with a single, effortless flick, for giving a backhand so fast it was heard before it was felt, for grabbing a fistful of hair and smashing heads into walls.
The precision of the detail there is so vivid, and the way it illustrates manual ability sliding so easily into violence. The opening section of Forgetting Zoë shows brilliantly how the young Thurman is damaged and becomes the monster we see in the later parts of the novel. Growing up in a violent household, with feelings of inadequacy because he can’t be the man his father wants him to be, Hayes’s feelings bubble over and he ends up with a confused attitude to women that leads him to…
Well, that’s another striking thing about Forgetting Zoë: some of the key events take place ‘off-stage’, so there are gaps in our knowledge of cause and effect. For example, we never see the actual abduction of Zoë; whilst it’s readily possible to construct a theory of why Hayes kidnaps her, we don’t know the full story; when we meet him and Zoë again after the abduction, they are changed characters; we have to work to reach them once again, which adds another layer of richness to the novel.
Another lacuna in the narrative is the bulk of Zoë’s captivity. In 1999, we see the beginnings of Zoë the ‘true Canadian girl of big sky, big moon, of big sunsets and clouds’ slipping away in the bunker; but the contrast with her eighteen-year-old self when we jump forward to 2007 still carries quite an impact. The section covering the run-up to Zoë’s escape is perhaps the most powerful in the whole book, as Zoë is torn between her desire to escape and her reluctance to leave Hayes behind. With its uncertain passage of time, this section has a sickening ebb and flow, as one wonders if Zoë ever will gain her freedom – and the fact that we already know from the section title that she will does nothing to diminish that effect.
The title of Forgetting Zoë refers more than anything to Zoë forgetting herself. She starts to do that during her captivity, of course; but there’s a more positive interpretation of the title to be found at the end – that of being able to forget the past. As with Jack in Room, there is a sense of new beginnings for Zoë. And, as good a book as Room is, I think Forgetting Zoë may just be one of my reads of the year.