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The Rooms We Live In

December 17, 2010

1. Today I’m doing all my writing work in my bedroom. It’s cold for San Francisco, and the only place where my feet stay warm while I work is in bed. It occurs to me at some point in the morning as I look up from my laptop that some day I might want to change the orange curtains to white. There are five pairs of orange curtains because there are five windows in the room, including the glass door. Two of the windows look out into our shared backyard and from my bed I stare directly at the lemon tree that died this year. We have lots of theories about why but none of them helped the tree. The hummingbirds don’t seem to mind. They land on the tips of the highest branches and become still, changing from whirring machines into miniature real birds. During the morning, I work on my novel-in-progress, revising the second half of a chapter about Timo and Katarina. The work is to push into their feelings and get those feelings on the page.

2. I had read a bunch of favorable reviews of the new novel Room by Emma Donoghue. I was intrigued by the idea of a five-year-old narrator and wondered how a novel could take place in a single room. How did the author pull that off? I put it on my long list of books. When I got sick a couple of weeks ago, my husband came home with a gift, the hard cover book, all white with the word “ROOM” written on it as though in primary colored crayons.

And then I let it sit. On my night stand in the position of book being read. On my night stand on the pile of books waiting to be read. The pile of being read slowly. I kept moving it from one position to the other, somehow wary of the novel now that I had it. I had a vague feeling that it would be hard, hard content, hard style, something hard. Then one evening, a half hour before I planned to go to sleep, I started to read it. I don’t usually start new books when I’m tired. It requires a certain energy to enter a new world, a new voice. In this case I think I was tricking myself, turning something I had been avoiding into a non-decision. Sleepy action.

3. A few weeks ago, it was Thanksgiving break, and while we knew we would stay in San Francisco for the Thursday dinner, we wanted to go away somewhere after for a night or two. We found a few places online, and then looked them over with the kids. My eleven-year-old daughter loved looking at the photos then rejected most of the places immediately. Where would I sleep, she said of one of them. It says for four but with a pull-out sofa bed and I’m not sleeping on a pull-out sofa bed. As the week went on, she became more articulate about what she wanted in a place: it had to have three bedrooms because she had to have her own room. She wanted a vacation to be kind of like home but different, a more special home, somewhere else.

This is a girl who is very attached to her room. If we let her, she’d probably even eat her meals there, either in bed or on the floor. Her door is often shut, whether she’s doing her homework, singing, or listening to audio books while creating intricate art. She doesn’t like to travel but this time, for reasons unknown, she seemed game to go. We found a house up the coast on Highway One that fit her (and the rest of the family’s) specifications and when we arrived on Friday afternoon, she immediately chose the small top bedroom, the only thing on that floor, with a big white bed and windows facing the ocean. My son then called the downstairs room because there was a TV in it. That left me and my husband in the middle. In her new room, my daughter read me a novel she loves (The Mysterious Benedict Society) and between chapters we redecorated the room in our minds. No more green blinds. Take that mirror off the wall. But it’s so charming, she kept saying. I wouldn’t change much about it.

4. At dinner I told my family that I was reading a book that was disturbing me, sticking in my mind even when I wasn’t reading it, coating my skin. A book about a boy and his mother who live in a single room.  As I started to talk about it, I realized that I didn’t want to go into the details, the reasons why they were being kept there, because I didn’t want to disturb my kids. I stumbled around a way to vaguely get the picture across. But that is exactly what is so disturbing about the novel, Room. It is not vague. It is not distant. It is so deeply inside a point of view that most of us cannot, or would not want to, imagine.

When I found the book too disturbing, I resorted to craft questions and critique: Would a five-year-old really think that? The author is taking liberties with point of view. Why are the objects all capitalized: Room, Bed, Wardrobe? Is that an effective way to get across the narrator’s relationship with these things? Would things really be animate, related to in the way that is described? But I kept returning to the book, to its haunting and discomforting voice, to the described or enacted life of the boy and his mother, two very real characters.

Since the trip, I’ve found myself telling every fiction-reading adult I’ve seen that I am reading a book called Room, and it’s about a boy and his mother…  And most people respond that they’ll skip it, they don’t need to read something that upsetting. And while I am clearly struggling with being upset–I’m having more vivid dreams than usual, I’m keeping my family updated on what has happened in the book so far, I’m telling everyone about it–it feels important, and worth it, to be upset this way about these people in this situation and about the book that gives it life.

5. Why read a novel that’s upsetting? I don’t read serial killer novels, horror, anything really scary. Not even in their literary forms. So why do I reject those books and not this one? Am I a hypocrite? But then I realize: most of these types of novels, and by that I mean novels that get into the head of someone who has disturbing, violent, sadistic impulses and/or actions are written by men about men. With the exception of The Lovely Bones and We Need to Talk About Kevin, I can’t think of a novel by a woman that takes on this particular subject matter. And I also realize: as terrible as it is to imagine, Room isn’t a story about a serial killer; it’s the story of  a woman and a child. Historically, factually, there are more women and children being held captive, being tortured in this way, than there are men. In an interview, Emma Donoghue says it was important to her not to give the captor, Old Nick as he is called, much space in the book. Once the two escape, Old Nick is hardly mentioned. Somehow all that makes a big difference to me. Novels are meant to show us new worlds, to get inside the heads of people we don’t know. There are some heads I refuse to enter, but not this one.

6. And as a writer? What did Emma Donoghue go through to write this book? She says it was sparked by true stories, and she read as many of them as she could, but she then changed key facts so that she wouldn’t be faithful to any. I cannot picture the rooms she lived in, read in, wrote in, slept in while working on the novel. But I can imagine one of these rooms–the room of her head, the room that she, as a writer, had to open in order to fill, to see and construct and make things, and feelings, happen. I sometimes fight to get the feelings of my characters on the page because it means that I, to some extent, have to feel those feelings and when they are painful feelings, I don’t want to. I don’t know if all writers go through this, but I can’t imagine that Emma Donoghue didn’t live with some difficult emotions while writing the novel. And yet, she manages, while telling a story of insane and harmful confinement, to get something universal and beautiful across–the relationship of a young boy to the room he knows and in many ways loves, the relationship of the boy with his mother, the struggle this mother, and most mothers I know, though in completely different circumstances, go through to give their children what they need while still trying to keep a piece of themselves free.

If taken very broadly, the novel shows how we move from the rooms of our minds to the rooms we live in to the outside world that is sometimes too much, or too harsh, to handle. (In fact, Old Nick is part of that outside world, and though he is the reason the narrator and his mother are captive in their room, he is also represents the danger and intrusion of the outside when he comes in at night.) The novel dramatizes, and to some extent resolves, the movement between inside and out. But not completely. Even when the boy and his mother have found their freedom, it is a complicated space to negotiate.

We attempt in our daily lives to negotiate this movement as well. While  we are not being held physically captive and do not in that way need to escape, there is the milder struggle of comfort and complacency, of being safe and being stuck, of staying in and going  out–whether metaphorically or really. And the outside is not always a friendly place.

When I told my daughter yesterday that I was writing about Room and rooms, and how I wasn’t sure I was getting the pieces, which appear to be opposites but I don’t think are, to fit together, she did not look puzzled. She asked first whether the boy had gotten out of the room (I guess I forget to tell that part). Then she said I should quote her. About what, I asked, though I knew. That my room is my best friend, she said. Quote me in your blog.

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