In April 2008 Austrian police discovered that Elisabeth Fritzl had been imprisoned in a cellar by her father, along with the children she was forced to bear by him, for 24 years. Within days the playwright and novelist Emma Donoghue had the idea for a novel called Room.
“I was driving along when Room came to me in a flash,” she told Caroline Walsh, the late literary editor of The Irish Times, in 2009. “If such a story of being born into captivity were told from the child’s point of view, I thought, it would not be a horror or sob story but a journey from one world to another.”
Part of the power of Room is that, while it works as a gripping account of captivity and escape, it does indeed become a kind of parable for a much more ordinary experience. The journey from one world to another is deeply imprinted on Irish culture through the history of mass emigration. And emigration yet again became the norm after the deflation of the Celtic Tiger bubble in 2008.
It seems somehow fitting that the film versions of two Irish novels from this period competed at the Oscars in 2016: Colm Tóibín’s emigration story Brooklyn (published in 2009) and Donoghue’s Room, published in 2010. For Room, too, is a kind of exile story.
Donoghue herself is an emigre. She was born in Dublin in 1969, the youngest of eight children of Frances and Denis Donoghue (the distinguished literary critic). After studying at University College Dublin she did a doctorate at Cambridge and emerged primarily as a literary and cultural historian with Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801. Those interests were reflected in her first play, I Know My Own Heart (1993), and the powerful historical novel Slammerkin (2000).
After years of commuting between England, Ireland and Canada, Donoghue settled in 1998 in London, Ontario, with her partner and their two children.
Exile and motherhood both help to shape Room. The novel is narrated by five-year-old Jack in a brilliant version of baby language: “We do tickles and Bouncy Bouncy and jaggedly shadows on Bed Wall.” Jack’s world is this room, and its intimately known features are the landmarks of his terrain: Wardrobe, Bed, Skylight, Rocker, Duvet, Rug and Melty Spoon.
And, of course, Ma. Except when their captor, Old Nick, visits, Jack and Ma are almost like one being. The book moves readers in part because it is an intensification of the common experience of having a child, in all its claustrophobic terror and glory.
But the novel is also structured around the gradual expansion of these narrow horizons: the loss of an absolute innocence as a wider world of possibilities opens itself up. Jack’s narrative voice is not so distant from those of Paddy Clarke or Francie Brady. (See the entries in this series for 1992 and 1993). The great tension in Room is that while the reader is willing Jack and Ma to escape, that escape, for Jack, is also an expulsion from his own little Eden.
Room is fascinating both in itself and for the way it reconnects the realist and avant-garde strands of Irish modernist writing. On the one hand Donoghue painstakingly creates a real world from scratch. On the other she does so with the modernist tools of metafiction and minimalism. For Donoghue’s Jack minimalism isn’t a literary style: it is the overwhelming condition of his existence.
Even while telling a story with cinematic vividness the author gives us a radical account of how stories are made. As Jack enters the world he knows only as Outside, nothing is known and everything has to be learned. Nothing is given and everything has to be invented. Nothing is fixed and everything is in a state of becoming.
Room captures a very 21st-century sensibility, in which history is of little use and the imperative is to start again.
[BYLINE1]FINTAN O'TOOLE[/BYLINE1]Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks is a collaboration between T he Irish Times and the Royal Irish Academy. Find out more at ria.ie