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[333] Room: A Novel – Emma Donoghue

” Room is real for real, but maybe Outside is too only it’s got a cloak of invisibility on like Prince Jacker Jack in the story? ” [63]

For the entire five years of his life Jack has never left the 11-by-11 foot room where lives with his mother. Room constitutes Jack’s entire world, to the extent that anything that exists outside of the confine of the windowless Room simply isn’t real. Like TV. Donoghue fills us on Jack’s world in his words, but limited perspective: We know what Jack knows, and most of the time, we learn more than he can yet grasp. What drives the book is the gap between Jack’s understanding and the reader’s.

Between the new-minted language and odd syntax that befit a child, it’s revealed that Room is actually a cork-lined dungeon in which Jack and his mother are held captive. They are at the mercy of one Old Nick who holds a key of the shed and rations their provisions. To Jack Room is a haven because his mother has created a sanctuary in which she nourishes him. To his mother it’s a jail, for she is kept there against her will for seven years.

Jack’s mother is without a sympathetic figure. Aware that her son is growing up and claustrophobia slowly sets in, she contemplates an escape. Concomitant to their liberty (my apology for the spoiler) are issues concerning Jack’s cognitive distortions, and most importantly, establishing the separation from his mother that must take place in order for the boy to develop into his own person. Up to this point the child doesn’t comprehend the startling fact that he’s not the only other person who exists.

The one flaw that offsets the unique premise and creativity of the book is the lack of depth in which Donoghue would explore the gamut of emotions that should befall anyone who has been held in captivity for years. Consider the details (at times contrived) she goes into the regimened life in the Room, the post-liberation life is drawing a blank, which is a grave oversight. There exists an unforgivable disconnection between the intense trauma during captivity and the casual voice with which the novel is told.

321 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]
Room is shortlisted for Independent Literary Award: Literary Fiction.

[157] Landing – Emma Donoghue

“They could never say good night or good morning without laughing at the incongruity of it, the dissonance. The timing was awful: Their biorhythms never matched. Sometimes Sile was going to bed, wanting to flirt sleepily, and Jude was frying garlic or dashing out to a meeting or off to play pool with Rizla…Out of sight, not out of mind. Sile told herself at solitary moments. This was like prayer, she supposed: talking in your head, keeping faith with the invisible.” [199]

Is George L. Jackson to blame or to thank? The seventy-something-year-old man who dies asleep on a trans-Atlantic flight to London, Jude Turner’s first, creates the chance of her meeting Sile O’Saughnessy, the flight attendant who bends over and certifies him. Jude Turner is a twenty-five-year-old archivist who is stubbornly attached to the tiny town of Ireland, Ontario, where she was born and raised. The tom-boy certainly belongs to the antiques age. Sile is a chic, stylish thirty-nine-year-old from Dublin. Nineteen years with the airline prunes her to be a season traveler. She has been with her partner, Kathleen, for five years.

The medical emergency has spawned their long-distance romance, which calls for patience and forbearance. To the consternation of her friends, Sile leaves Kathleen for practically a stranger with whom she has met once but maintained the relationship at electronic arm’s length. Not to mention Jude lives five time zones away, and in the eyes of many, she is the greedy, selfish wrecker who robs someone of her happiness. In the course of one year, Jude and Sile’s relationship builds upon numerous dispatches over the cyberspace and a couple visits.

As extreme their situation is, they are confronted with the same troubling issues that challenge many who maintain relationships by plane, phone and internet. Landing (pun intended) explores the pleasures and sorrows of a long-distance relationship in every possible nuance. So ironic that no sooner has the relationship become serious do these fear and qualm kick in—and the cause of which is not love but the physical separation. Jude smartly puts in “the intersection of love and geography.” The issue transcends whether one is committed or not, but the incongruity of time and the discontinuity of sharing:

“The what and who and why is easy, it’s just the when and where.” [249]

They can only console with the thought that separation spares them from claustrophobic living and bestows some breathing space. As to keeping secrets, even people who share the house would have told lies. But deep down inside they agonize over how distance has inevitably added to their differences. The unbridgeable gap between words and flesh constantly remind them the truth to which they are sensitive and which they avoid: As soon as you kiss goodbye you snap back into the busy-busy world of routines and mundanity without one another.

Landing does not impress me with its initial snippets of flirtations and e-mail exchanges, although the dialogues really knock my head spinning. They are just hilarious. But Donoghue is only paving her way to something more provocative—the rhetorical inquiry of love over generational, geographical, and demographical differences. The narrative exudes a sense of urgency, to seize the moment and pursue what out heart desires. Throughout the novel the time is warped as it seems to slow down when the lovers are in longing. After all, everyone who is in the same shoe as Jude and Sile has to make up his own mind. What would you give up for love?

I would do whatever it takes to make it work if there is mutual feeling.

The Sunday Salon: Making History

The Sunday Salon.comThe back-to-school month has not seen a decrease in my reading. In fact, I have just broken the record of the number of books read in a month. Landing by Emma Donoghue is my 9th book for September. In this romance comedy of a novel, she explores with a light, sure touch the subject of desire across distances of various kinds: generational, cultural, even spiritual. Two women meets on a trans-Atlantic plane and spawns a long-distance relationship. Sile O’Shaughnessy, 39, is a stylish, seasoned flight attendant living in Dublin; Jude Turner, 25, is a hardworking historian at a museum in tiny Ireland, Ontario. You may call their meeting a serendipitous moment in life: It’s Jude embarks on her first plane trip—to England, where her mother has taken ill. The passenger next to Jude expires en route, an omen that works two ways: prefiguring Jude’s mother’s death, which will leave her alone in the house they shared, and signaling a connection between her and Sile, who’s working that flight.

Despite moments of jokes, Landing so far doesn’t live up to the engrossing suspense of the historical fiction Slammerkin, her previous work. But it does explore the intersection of love and geography. Jude and Síle have a far more dimensional relationship because of their differences. The long-distance relationship plays into this uncertainty, adding layers to the story but also keeping the women’s relationship somewhat superficial, especially when Síle leaves her partner for five years, Kathleen, for Jude, who is practically a stranger until they meet again in Toronto. Do dykes really pair up so quickly and are not as sensible as the gay boys? I’m keeping my fingers cross on this one. One hundred and sixteen (116) pages read on Day One.

“The minutes crawled by. I’m an utter shit. Síle thought. I can’t believe I’m going to do this. I’m throwing away nearly five years, five pretty good years. But then it struck her like a rush of cold air that the years were gone. You didn’t stay with someone because of memory and gratitude, not unless you were a wife in some nineteenth-century novel. It had to be worth it today. How lazy I’ve been, drifting toward this moment!” [101]

[137] Slammerkin – Emma Donoghue

“She still breathed in what air there was and ate the little she could scrounge, though mostly for something to do. It was more that she no longer thought of herself as truly living, or as having anything left in the world to lose. Everyone she’d ever loved had left her, and always through her own fault.” (366)

Slammerkin* is a novel based on a real case of a girl, Mary Saunders, who was a servant in the employment of one Mrs. Jones in 18th century England. Emma Donoghue has drawn from the meager and disputed surviving facts Mary’s life and has chosen for her a very base trade, prostitution, for the three years of her life prior to service with the Jones. Her service at the household led to very shocking consequences that doomed her. In 1760, thirteen-year-old Mary Saunders was privileged to have attended school, for most of the girls at her age would have taken up apprenticeship in handicraft.

Being raised in a working-class family teetering on poverty constantly reminded her that she was a social disadvantage—a victim of her historical moment in which a girl was no more than an useless mouth to feed. When her step-father falsely accused her of pinching money with which she was to purchase meal for the family, her mother did not believe that the coins had slipped out of her frayed pocket. Embittered, out of protest she could have refused the last morsel of crust offered to her after the humiliation, but she was too hungry for dignity. Dignity.

Strolling the rabbit warrens of the Dials in London, Mary offered to be kissed by an old peddler and let his hands roam all over her skirts in exchange for linen, lace, and a shiny red ribbon that she she lusted for. Kicked out of the house she was taken in by Doll Higgins, who led her into a life of prostitution. Later on at Magdelen Hospital, where she sought refuge from the brutally cold weather and recovered from a nagging cough, the question of choosing confronted during a sermon that rehabilitated the girls to penitence. Is prostitution her own choosing? Has she chosen to kiss the peddler in exchange for the ribbon? True, she had chosen the circumstances, but had no say of her fate. She knew she deserved more than what domestic chores that confined the young women of her time. Her ambition, plagued by vague dreams of a better life, has destined her to this path.

Mary’s downfall began after less than month in the Jones’s house when she felt she had rented out her whole life to the family in advance. Service for which she had no talent reduced her to a puppet that had to obey the orders at someone else’s whim. Under the tutelage of her mistress, who treated her as a daughter, Mary became the deftest seamstress and embroider. The inner calling to the liberty and hustle-bustle of London streets overwhelmed her and, when she began whoring for the customers of the reverend, who pimped for her at the tavern, she forfeited the last chance of redemption. She rejected the new family and broke off engagement to a manservant. Her life was folded over like a hem—there was a day side and a night (dark) side—and she wasn’t sure which Mary was the real one.

Mary Saunders’s scope on freedom transmuted to the life of Abi, the African slave from Barbados. The central role in Abi was a big slap on the uncivil, stratified society that stripped people of their basic human right and dignity. But it crushed Abi’s spirit to realize that even a bold Londoner with high ambitions like Mary was not set free. In a sense, Mary’s being a prostitute who sold her body to the young, the old, the civil, and the boorish of her own choosing to achieve her goal in life was no more poignant than being a slave.

*Slammerkin n. (18th century, of unknown origin) 1 a loose gown 2 a loose woman

Brothel Reads

Reading The Painter from Shanghai lifted my memory of another which had been recommended to me, Slammerkin, by Emma Donoghue. Before this book, I have no clue what slammerkin means. It’s an archaic word meaning both a loose gown and a loose woman. The novel takes its inspiration from the true story of Mary Saunders, a girl driven to commit terrible deeds by her lust for fine clothes in the intensely-stratified 18th century England. The daughter of a poor but honest seamstress, allows a peddler to take her virginity in return for a shiny red ribbon. It should be downhill from there, and on the surface it is. I’m eager to find what would happen to her next. But both the writing and the story find their rhythm soon enough, and they are almost impossible to resist.