Sunday, January 8, 2012

Four walls to hear me/Four walls to see/Four walls too near me/Closing in on me

New Year's resolution: Much as I appreciate the opportunity to return to children's and teen's books that the last 10 years of youth librarianship afforded me, I'd really like to balance my reading a little more and bring my adult books up to at least half of my reading. About 34% of listening and 23% of all reading (books and audiobooks) were adult books last year.

So, let's get started! Room by Emma Donoghue has been on the TBLT list for awhile, as something drew me to the idea of listening to this instead of reading it. An excellent decision, I think, as the voice of five-year-old Jack is still resonating four days later.

For those even more out of the adult reading loop than I am, Room is a story narrated by Jack. Jack and his Ma live together in Room -- which, as far as Jack is concerned, has everything he needs to be content: a few books, the TV (which shows him stories of fictional "outer space" worlds outside of Room, a particular favorite is Dora the Explorer), food and shelter, and the fierce love and companionship of his mother. Occasionally, Old Nick unlocks the door and comes into Room, but Jack is sent to sleep in Wardrobe while Old Nick is there. If he doesn't fall asleep, he counts the number of times the bed creaks during Nick's visits.

We first meet Jack and Ma on the morning of Jack's 5th birthday, but we quickly grow to understand what Ma knows -- that Jack cannot be contained by Room for much longer. Ma's story of kidnap and rape slowly emerges as she convinces Jack to be her hero and help her pull off a preposterous escape. I don't want to spoil, since I was truly invested in Ma's success or failure, so I shall finish this inadequate summary simply by saying that I was drawn in by this story from beginning to end.

Donoghue never loses sight of Jack's perspective. Yes, he's ridiculously articulate, but that five-year-old capacity for seeing the world very clearly in limited ways is also part of his narrative. His struggles -- and how he observes those of his Ma -- to come to terms with their life remain childlike, occasionally funny but also quite poignant. I was seriously creeped out at the beginning of this novel, because I knew what was really going on, and then it morphed briefly into horror at Ma's plan to escape. Clearly, I was invested in these two people and their fate mattered to me up until the end.

Yay audio! Room is one of those books where listening adds a whole level of intensity to the literary experience. It's not my voice I'm hearing, it's Jack's. And that made it utterly real to me. The narrator is Michal Friedman and she is pretty amazing. Her voice and rhythms are childlike, without being childish (unless Jack is, of course). I think that's why I was so disturbed at the beginning -- I was hearing this horror story from a child. When Jack is learning of Ma's plans for their escape, he and I had the same reaction: This is not going to work. I was listening to this part of the novel while trying to fall asleep ... and couldn't. It was nail-bitingly tense.

The audio publisher chose three other narrators to read the dialogue of the book's adult characters: Ellen Archer reads Ma, Robert Petkoff reads Old Nick and the other males, and Suzanne Toren takes all the female roles. (I guess that's a spoiler ... sorry!) Like Full Cast Audio does, the "s/he saids" are all removed from the narration, and since the narrators are only reading dialogue, they need to get all the character and emotion into just line readings, which can be treacherous. They all do well, but occasionally my ear would rebel if the voice actor was having a conversation with him/herself. This was a rare occurrence, and Toren had to do it most often. Toren also tried a few accents -- Irish and Spanish -- which never sounded completely natural. I've heard all three of them read before (Archer, Petkoff, and Toren before this blog).

I've also heard Michal Friedman read, although the publisher of that audiobook spelled her name incorrectly (and thus, so did I). But in trolling the internet to find out more about her, I came upon tragic news: She died in November from complications after giving birth to twins!

Donoghue, considered primarily an historical novelist until she wrote Room, shies away from "inspired," but does say that the notorious case of Josef Fritzl "triggered" her creation of Jack. And, masterfully in my opinion, it's Jack who keeps the horror at bay, Jack's innocence that keeps the story from sensationalism, Jack's wonder at a brave new world that makes Room so compelling. There's something ironic in beginning a resolution to read more books for adults with a book that so effortlessly tells a child's story.

[The lock on the door of a garden shed was taken by Ajmint and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

[Post title is the chorus of "Four Walls," sung by Jim Reeves.]

Room by Emma Donoghue
Narrated by Ellen Archer, Michal Friedman, Robert Petkoff and Suzanne Toren
Hachette Audio, 2010. 10:52

No comments: