ROOM, by Emma Donoghue. Little, Brown and Co., 321 pp., $24.99.
I didn't think I'd enjoy a book inspired by the crimes of Josef Fritzl, the Austrian rapist who locked his daughter in a basement for 24 years, where she bore and raised his children in captivity. I'm rarely drawn to voyeuristic narratives, fictional or nonfictional, about psychopaths and their crimes. And since I became a parent, I steer away from books where bad things happen to children.
But "Room" is not this sort of book at all. The breathtaking trick of Emma Donoghue's novel, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is similar to the one pulled off by her main character, known only as Ma, who raises her son, Jack, in an 11-by-11-foot space. The novel is the furthest thing from lurid, claustrophobic or sensational. Instead, it's lovely and poignant, even whimsical. It's full of insight about parenthood. And it's hard to put down.
Since the details of the plot and back story are dealt out so judiciously and create so much suspense, I won't reveal many of them here. The key to counteracting the seemingly inevitable prurience of the story is Donoghue's decision to let Jack tell it. He begins like this: "Today I'm five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I'm changed to five, abracadabra."
Jack understands the room he lives in to be all there is - Skylight, Rug, Mirror, Plant. The images he sees on TV he takes as transmissions from worlds that whirl inside the box itself. "On the other planets it's mostly persons that hundreds can fit into the screen, except often one gets all big and near."
Seeing Jack's life through his eyes, you come to appreciate how the protectiveness, nurturing and creativity of his young mother have created a functional and impressively armored world, an alternate reality within the horrible truth. Ma protects Jack from their captor by having him sleep in Wardrobe, where he lies nervously but safely, enduring the man's nocturnal visits by counting creaks from the bed. "Old Nick," as the boy thinks of him, is also known for a regular Sunday treat - painkillers for Ma's bad tooth, a pair of pants or a cheap toy. There are never any new books, so they read "Dylan the Digger" and "The Runaway Bunny" over and over.
The world of "Room" mirrors ordinary parental experience - repeating the same nursery rhyme a zillion times, finding ways to pass the day in an airport lounge, getting through the terrors and boredom of a blackout - and this makes Ma and Jack's experience relatable.
In fact, Outside ends up seeming more bizarre than the world within. Donoghue's description of the experience of release from captivity is well done (and based on research from the real cases), but it cannot measure up to the magic of the story before Ma and Jack leave Room. This dark and beautiful fairy tale about the parent-child relationship is what you'll never forget.