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Monday, January 20, 2020

The Voice in the Dark

Five-year-old Jack leads what he considers a routine life with his Ma: awaking when “God’s yellow face” beams through the skylight,watching TV,eating with his favourite Meltedy Spoon.

Written by Shruti Ravindran | Published: September 18, 2010 12:03:43 am

Five-year-old Jack leads what he considers a routine life with his Ma: awaking when “God’s yellow face” beams through the skylight,watching TV,eating with his favourite Meltedy Spoon (who stood too close to the boiling pasta once) and playing with toys,like Eggsnake,who has eggshell-scales and a needle tongue. In the night,when Door “beep beeps”,and ‘Old Nick’ pays a visit,Jack stays dead still in Wardrobe,counting the bed-squeaks which culminate in a “gaspy noise”.

In Room by Emma Donoghue — currently on the Booker shortlist — Jack narrates the tale of his young mother’s incarceration and seven-year-long abuse in a subterranean sound-proofed garden shed,and their no-less-scary,tumultuous life outside,after he plays dead,escapes,and enables their rescue.

Jack’s voice joins a clamourous chorus of precocious,cute child-voices,describing less-than-cute things,and inducing gaspy noises out of

admiring readers with their perspective-bending descriptions of the adult world,and the dramatic suspense generated by their incomplete understanding of the events

they relate.

Authors have deployed these naive narrators to varying effect. Mark Haddon reinvigorated the mystery novel in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by casting an autistic 15-year-old as a compulsive fact-collecting amateur sleuth,while John Wray’s teenaged schizophrenic brought an unhinged,startlingly expressive poetry to his experience of fleeing into the New York subway

in Lowboy.

Others looked at historic events in a sharply personal way,like Jonathan Safran Foer’s nine-year-old Oskar Schell,who struggled to cope with his father’s death in the WTC attacks in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,or John Boyne,author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,who went for big-screen schmaltz when he put his child-narrator,a concentration camp commandant’s young son,outside ‘Out-With’.

Donoghue’s Jack combines most of these elements. We’re to marvel at his endearing pidgin,composed of his Ma’s tales and TV,and his resilient innocence,which fills poky,bleak Room with benevolent personified presences: Rug,who he stained “getting born”,Balloon,who’s wrinkly and small and wants a sister,Lamp,who “makes everything light up whoosh”,and Plant,who lived on Table until “God’s face burned a leaf of her off”. The naive narrator point-of-view revives public memory of recent kidnapped-and-trapped cases — those of Austrians Natasha Kampusch and Elizabeth Fritzl — with the added he-doesn’t-know-but-we-know frisson of the perspectival twist.

Some of this does work,demonstrating the power of that dictum so beloved of writer’s workshops — show don’t tell. The escape scene feels all the more vivid because we hear Jack’s chest “going dangadangadang”,as does the drama of the sensational rescue,which attracts the paparazzi — “It’s dark but then there’s lights quick quick like fireworks.” This is where Donoghue’s ventriloquist act is most effective; in its depiction of the “secondary trauma of celebrity” and how disorientating and unreal reality can feel after a long time spent in isolation.

The now-gushing,now-bullying nature of tabloid culture gets a richly deserved drubbing,as do the tabloid-freak “fans” who send toys,money and even excrement as tokens of their support. Jack is puzzled to come across a newspaper which calls him Bonsai Boy,and a talk-show he sees one night at his Grandma’s,whose host

declares “We’re all Jack,in a sense,trapped in our personal room one-oh-one,and then perversely,on release,finding ourselves alone in a crowd…” before drawing an absurdly pretentious comparison between Plato’s cave and Jack’s learning about the world through TV.

With Jack coming into the ‘Outerspace’ beyond Room,which he never dreamed he’d see,there’s the inevitable profusion of coy Martianisms — so called in honour of the delightful Craig Raine poem The Martian Sends a Postcard Home,in which the telephone is called “a haunted apparatus” which “snores when you pick it up”. These vary from charming — such as vending

machines being like spaceships,and throwing your head back when you swing making you “a cool kind of dizzy” — to icky and improbable,like a girl child’s private parts described as “a fat little piece of body folded in the middle with no fur”.

What feels even more unlikely is when Jack is made to play the philosopher naif. It’s hard to keep suspending disbelief when a five-year-old capable of artless sentences such as “Jeep is not a stupid” also makes the emotionally astute observation: “Everywhere I’m looking at kids,adults mostly don’t seem to like them,not even the parents do. They call the kids gorgeous and so cute,they make the kid do the thing all over again so they can take a photo,but they don’t want to actually play with them,they’d rather drink coffee talking to other adults.”

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