This story follows a young boy, Jack, and his mother as they live their lives trapped in a small room. Jack was born there, and in his five years of life he has never seen the world beyond the locked door. Emma Donoghue was inspired by the horrifying events in the 2008 Josef Fritzl abduction case, in which a man in Austria locked his daughter in his basement and abused her for twenty-four years.
When I was a little kid I thought like a little kid, but now I’m five I know everything.
I enjoyed this so much more than I thought I would. What could have been an irritating gimmick, having a five-year-old narrate a harrowing story such as this, worked perfectly for me. I thought Donoghue hit the perfect balance of making Jack’s voice feel authentic without it feeling like you’re actually in the head of a child for three-hundred pages, which seems like a tricky feat. This novel wouldn’t work if Jack’s thoughts were too mature, but it also wouldn’t work if his thoughts were completely that of a five-year-old, and she really managed to pulled it off.
The writing in this was fantastic. Not only was Jack’s voice somewhat believable for his age, but I was constantly surprised with the little insights and observations he had as a child locked away from the outside world. We learn about the situation as Jack does, without any chunks of exposition, but we obviously understand what’s happening well before he does. That gap in knowledge, between the reader and the protagonist, is usually a huge annoyance in fiction, but it’s part of the charm when you have a five-year-old narrator. He watches television, and listens to his mother’s stories, and often misinterprets what he’s seeing in smart and beautiful little ways that make sense in the context of his life. I really loved these moments, and I imagine there must have been a strong temptation for Donoghue to carefully explain to the reader how clever she was being, but she just sprinkles these moments about for the reader to find.
Sometimes when persons say definitely it sounds actually less true.
I wouldn’t call this a thriller, and it’s not really frightening, but it was very unnerving. It was also often a pleasant read, however, despite having such dark inspiration and subject matter. In a way, the mother’s act of shielding her son from the horror of their situation managed to also shield it from the reader. Maybe I’m just simple, but the daily routines and distractions she set out for Jack also helped settle me in a way, although there was still always that eerie undertone of wondering what was to come. This was the dictionary definition of a page-turner for me, without it being heavily plot-driven, which is an interesting mix.
I really thought she executed this perfectly, and I’ll will be looking to pick up another novel by her soon. We have a big used book sale coming up, which I’m sure I’ve mentioned, and there will certainly be a few of her novels to be found there. It’s usually easy to find books from anyone associated with a Man Booker Prize, which this was shortlisted for in 2010, as well as popular Canadian authors in general (Irish-born, but we’ve adopted her).