April reading round-up

Although the number of books I finished this month looks pretty standard for me, most of them were pretty short and I read the bulk of Crime and Punishment in February and March, so actually it’s been a bit of a slow one. However, I did listen to a lot of short stories. I’m really enjoying this rediscovery of short stories.

Books read

Dead Air by Iain Banks (review here)

Claudine and Annie by Colette

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (read-a-long notes here)

The Books of Magic mini series by Neil Gaiman

Mr Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt (review here)

Dan Yack by Blaise Cendrars (review here)

Short stories

“The dinner party” by Joshua Ferris (New Yorker fiction podcast)

“Figures in the distance” by Jamaica Kincaid (New Yorker fiction podcast)

“Three people” by William Trevor (Guardian books podcast)

“The student’s wife” by Raymond Carver (Guardian books podcast)

“No sweetness here” by Ama Ata Aidoo (Guardian books podcast)

“The hunger artist” by Franz Kafka (Guardian books podcast)

“At Hiruharama” by Penelope Fitzgerald (Guardian books podcast)

“The Gospel According to Mark” by Jorge Luis Borges (New Yorker fiction podcast)

“Bullet in the brain” by Tobias Wolff (New Yorker fiction podcast)

“Canon Alberic’s scrapbook” by M R James (Guardian books podcast)

“A day” by William Trevor (New Yorker fiction podcast)

“The postmaster” by Rabindranath Tagore (Guardian books podcast)

“Notes from the house spirits” by Lucy Wood (Guardian books podcast)

The only other bookish thing I did this month was visit the British Library yesterday, of which more later this week. I don’t think I even ventured in a bookshop, although that’s probably best considering the size of the TBR!

Murder in the Library

An infinite sadness took hold of him

Dan Yack

Dan Yack
by Blaise Cendrars
translated from French by Nina Rootes

Probably the most serendipitous book find of my life was in the Oxford branch of Blackwells Bookshop about eight years ago. From their bargain bins I randomly picked up a book I had never heard of by an author I had never heard of and I completely loved it; in fact it’s one of my top three or four books ever. That book was The Confessions of Dan Yack by Blaise Cendrars, which is actually the second book about Dan Yack, so for years I had been intending to read this earlier novel but somehow it just sat there on the TBR.

This is a stunning piece of writing. If everything was written this way I would probably find it frustrating but in this case it works. It blends the poetic and the banal, even baseness. A couple of pages might include high adventure, stream of consciousness, erotica, boredom, detailed descriptions of settings and switch between multiple points of view.

“The Neva flowed past at eye-level. The rushing current swept the timber-barges down at full speed; crouched and menacing, they ploughed through the close-packed waves that were ruffled up the wrong way by the harsh wind of dawn. Sudden shivers rippled the wet fur of the river as it stretched itself nervously and arched its back.”

In its 130 pages we follow multi-millionaire playboy Dan Yack from St Petersburg to Liverpool to the Antarctic to Chile. Yack is an eccentric and initially appears frivolous and unthinking but gradually reveals both good business sense and a good heart. However, I never did completely warm to him – the combination of seal hunting and his never having read a book didn’t exactly make him my ideal hero – but I was certainly intrigued.

“Dan Yack suddenly fell silent. He felt uneasy again. His legs sagged. He was overwhelmed by fatigue. An infinite sadness took hold of him, drained him, blew him up again, oppressed him.”

I suppose you might call this a Modernist take on the adventure novel. The bulk of the story centres around Yack deciding to treat his heartbreak by spending a winter in the Antarctic. On a whim he invites three impoverished artists he meets at the end of a long drunken night of debauchery to join him.

I suppose one of the attractions for me of this book was the Antarctic setting. Cendrars ran away to sea as a teenager so he was almost certainly writing from true experience of the endless days turning into endless nights. Certainly that section had many of the same details and much of the same unease, even terror, of other books I have read with an Antarctic setting.

“Nine times out of ten, the weather was overcast, but when it was not, the night outside was like a fairyland. The icy cold was always intoxicating…sometimes, there is an austral dawn that shakes out its crackling draperies at the level of the ice; it is yellow, green, shot with fugitive gleams and punch-flames.”

The storyline is incredible, in a literal sense, but that’s almost beside the point. Cendrars unveils the human psyche, the revelation is what truly matters to Yack, not what happens to him. But while that sounds terribly serious, the book is actually a lot of fun, with an odd sense of humour, or at least a sense of the ridiculous.

“Deene had to wait a while before he could get a word in because a little nasal phonograph was filling the narrow cabin with a young, charmingly artificial female voice. Dan Yack swore it was a buxom little blonde, wiggling her hips as she sang…
‘Sir,’ the captain began determinedly, ‘I—’
‘Wait,’ said Dan Yack, ‘let me change the cylinder. It’s amazing…Can you see the old tart who’s singing now, Captain?…The sweat’s rolling down from under her ridiculous wig…She’s wearing thick blue stockings with garters at the knee, I adore that! What a marvellous invention!…Wait a minute, I’m going to have you listen to the cries of a sea-lion that’s having its throat cut.'”

While Modernist, this is certainly not an especially modern story. It is full of sexism and racism, not to mention the hunting (Yack’s family fortune is largely based on whale hunting). And yet I loved it. I was utterly spellbound. Huge credit must go to the translator here because every sentence was perfect. I quickly gave up picking out quotes because every line is quotable.

“Outside the storm raged. A sheet of corrugated iron was ripped from the roof. Then a pile of barrels came crashing against the door. The wind besieged the house.
It raged for many days and nights.
The first blizzard.
A white-out.
Winter.”

Apparently Cendrars was one of the founders of, the pioneers, of Modernism and it seems a shame that he is not read widely. I seriously must not wait another eight years to pick up the other Cendrars title on my TBR.

First published 1927 by Editions Denoël. This translation published 1987 by Peter Owen.

Source: I bought this secondhand, probably via Abe Books.

Challenges: This counts toward the 2013 Translation Challenge and the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge.

A dictionary of loss

Mr Chartwell

Mr Chartwell
by Rebecca Hunt

Since this book came out I had wanted to read it and finally persuaded my book club to read it for April – only to get the date of our meeting completely wrong and then get in a reading funk that meant it took me over two weeks to get through this thin little novel. I suspect this reflects unfairly on the book, because it never gripped me and yet I thought it was great.

The Mr Chartwell of the title is a large black dog who turns up on the doorstep of mousy librarian Esther and asks to rent her spare room. He is a bizarre combination of obnoxious human being and actual dog, but we gradually realise he is far more complicated than that. He is the physical manifestation of depression and shares out his attentions between Esther and a certain Winston Churchill.

Mr Chartwell, also known as Black Pat, is a repulsive character, as of course he should be. He irritates, demeans, distracts and tires out his victims. The setting is 1968, on the eve of Churchill’s retirement, so he is by now a dab hand at dealing with Black Pat’s visits, while Esther is completely new to it and takes most of the novel to figure out what is going on.

“A shirt dropped on the floor had developed a modest beauty, cultivating the painterly creases of a restaurant napkin. On the windowsill was a small balding plant. The magic of the late light made it gorgeous and exotic.
Esther stared from the bed, blind to these things. She lay on her side of the mattress. A hand explored the other side and it was a dictionary of loss. Up came the hand, disturbed by something disgusting. A tuft of collected fur. Over the bed, over everything.”

It really is a very original and interesting premise. It’s a clever way to depict depression and anxiety, giving an explanation that is at once nonsensical and yet makes a lot of sense. Several times, Black Pat comments how easy it is to give in to him, how he becomes a friend but of course he is a hated enemy so how can that be?

“She did nothing. The noble action was no action, for to discuss the dog would violate a guarded privacy, exhuming the bones of a family of secrets. It would be grave robbery. The dog’s genius was to make orphans of hope and brotherhood, and she was united with Churchill in their isolation.”

The characterisation is excellent. While it may seem clichéd to have a mousy librarian sinking into depression, Esther’s colleagues Beth and Corkbowl add a bit of liveliness and variety to the workplace. And Churchill’s brash, often aggressive conversations with Black Pat make an interesting contrast to Esther’s meek acceptance. I did find that Churchill spoke a little too much like a speech-maker, in wise aphorisms (except when he was swearing at Black Pat) but perhaps he really did speak like that. I would imagine Hunt did some research on him.

The quote on the front cover of my copy calls it “original, tender and funny” and I largely agree. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny but between the ridiculousness of the talking dog and gentle humour provided by characters in a more everyday way there is definitely some fun. And the issue of depression is certainly explored tenderly, carefully keeping its extreme depths at a distance, though they are certainly acknowledged. But really this is more about the lower-level, longer-lingering depression, a constant anxiety that has to be kept in check, the ongoing battle to get on with life.

“‘I aspire to have the smile of Tess of the D’Urbervilles…Hardy wrote that she had a smile like roses of snow.’
…Esther took in the exhibition of teeth. No roses of snow, it was a split haggis stuck with shards of coconut bark.”

First published 2010 by Fig Tree. Published in Penguin Books 2011.

Source: I think I bought this myself from an actual proper bookshop.

Sunday Salon: Where does the time go?

The Sunday Salon

Three weekends ago I was patting myself on the back for having read four books in four days. Since then I have finished…drumroll please…one book. Granted, it was Crime and Punishment, but I started reading it in February so, err, yeah.

I have started reading two other books (Mr Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt and The Books of Magic mini series by Neil Gaiman) and got another out from the library that I’m excited about (The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale) but I really feel I’ve had a bit of a fail on the finding/making time to read front. Do you ever have weeks or even months like that?

I have excuses of course. We’ve been doing some more work on the house (I know I’ve been saying that since we moved in three and a half years ago; it’s a project), which is time-consuming and only sometimes satisfying, but I keep going to look at the library (the room that’s nearest to being “finished”) and remind myself that it will be amazing when all of the house looks that good. Well, okay, it’ll never all look that good unless we line every room with books and I don’t have that many books. Not yet.

Electrically speaking

We’re also trying when possible to take advantage of the lovely spring weather that has finally arrived, especially if we can enjoy it with friends. Yesterday we took a boat trip around Bristol Harbour and then hung out in the park. After a few recent speed walks through the park en route to Screwfix it was nice to be the ones stopping and enjoying the park for once!

Sail away

So I was wondering: what do you do if you notice you’re not getting much time to read? Do you try to change something in your routine to make time? Do you put it down to the book you’re reading not being gripping enough and switch to something else? Or do you just ride it out? Any advice appreciated, because I do not like this pattern!

Book and film: “I just know that another kid has felt this”

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
by Stephen Chbosky

I must admit that this book came on my radar because of the film, but both book and film sounded right up my street so I thought I’d check it out. I was completely right – this is a very sweet story. I’ll start with my thoughts on the book.

Charlie is starting high school and as a coping mechanism he starts writing anonymous letters about his life to a stranger, as an alternative to keeping a diary. He documents his discovery of girls, drugs, music and sex but this isn’t a straightforward coming of age tale.

“My brother started saying how my sister was just a ‘bitchy dyke.’ Then, my mom told my brother to not use such language in front of me, which was strange considering I am probably the only one in the family with a friend who is gay…
‘Are you high?’
And again my mom asked my brother not to use such language in front of me, which was strange again because I think I’m the only person in my family who’s ever been high…Then again, maybe my whole family has been high, and we just don’t tell each other these things.”

Charlie is socially awkward and, we gradually realise, suffers from some form of depression and/or other psychological disorder. What it is is never stated outright but there are hints that things in his past have affected him badly. He begins as a thorough outsider but gets taken under the wing of brother and sister Sam and Patrick, who cheerfully embrace alternative culture, in the form of music, drugs and the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Charlie is also “adopted” by a schoolteacher who gives him extra books to read.

There are a lot of characters who are damaged in some way, often having suffered horribly as young children, and it is one of the book’s strengths that it acknowledges that this has affected them without making it define them. It is in many ways a joyous book about the good times of being a teenager, and yet serious issues are tackled.

“I just know that another kid has felt this…all the books you’ve read have been read by other people. And all the songs you’ve loved have been heard by other people. And that girl that’s pretty to you is pretty to other people.”

There are lots of books, songs and films referenced; music in particular is key to the friendships depicted. Which lends itself very nicely to, say, a film soundtrack.

In the world of book-versus-film-adaptation, this is a bit of an unusual case. It’s Chbosky’s only novel to date; he seems to have carved a career as a film and TV writer. Indeed, he wrote the screenplay for and directed the film of this book. So it’s unsurprising that it’s a pretty faithful adaptation, with the same tone and the same key moments.

There are some differences. Some plot strands are necessarily jettisoned, which makes the film less nuanced (I’m thinking particularly of Charlie’s brother and sister here, who both had bigger roles in the book). When reading the book I thought there were hints that Charlie might be autistic to some degree, but there was no sign of that in the film. In the film I felt that the Rocky Horror Picture Show got much more emphasis than I’d expected, which reminded me a lot of Fame (indeed, the two have a few things in common and might make a good double bill).

Overall, I enjoyed both film and book. Neither is a classic but they’re certainly better than average and do a good job of balancing tough subjects with a happy, even optimistic, attitude to life.

Published 1999 by MTV Books.

Source: I bought this secondhand.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

Crime and Punishment read-a-long week 10 to the end

Read-a-long

Once I realised there were only just over 100 pages of this tome left, I couldn’t drag out reading it for another three weeks, as per the official schedule, so I read straight through to the end. Before I get to the spoilers for this final discussion post, I thought I’d write a few thoughts about the book as a whole.

For one thing, I still think I could have found a better translation. It has been interesting seeing excerpts quoted over at Unputdownables that were significantly different from what I had read. I started out reading the Penguin Popular Classics edition from 1997, which I found dull and depressing. I switched (or rather started over) to the Oxford World’s Classics edition translated by Jessie Coulson in 1953 and updated by Coulson in 1981 and initially found it a much better read. However, when other readers started raving about beautifully written or moving passages I looked at my edition and thought ‘Really?’. So there’s that.

The story seemed very slow. I mean, essentially, all the action happens in the early chapters, the rest of the book is the psychological effect of those actions. But there are a lot of characters and none of them is straightforward, in personality or in motivation, which makes guessing where the story is going quite tricky. There are a lot of intellectual discussions about not only crime and punishment, but also class, philosophy, love, society – there’s certainly a lot to get your teeth into. So while I didn’t find the story gripping, I did always find it interesting.

I would not say this was an instant favourite for me, or even highly ranked among classics I’ve read. I recognise it as a great piece of work but for me it was an intellectual exercise not an enjoyable read. I’ve heard it said that often people love either Dostoevsky or Tolstoy but rarely both, so perhaps I’d best give Leo a go.

And now for some thoughts on those final chapters. In weeks 10 and 11 I read from part 5 chapter 5 to the end. The official discussion posts will go up at Unputdownables every Friday. Unavoidably, the following will be pretty darned spoilerific.

There are so many characters who come across as just as or even more creepy than Ras, I had to keep reminding myself that he’s a murderer. But then in those moments when he tries to justify his murders a chill would go up my spine and I would, just for that moment, intensely dislike him.

“Although he judged himself severely, his lively conscience could find no particularly terrible guilt in his past, except a simple blunder, that might have happened to anybody… ‘What makes what I have done seem to them so monstrous?’ he asked himself. ‘The fact that it was a crime? What does the word mean? My conscience is easy…Many benefactors of mankind who did not inherit power but seized it for themselves should have been punished at their first steps. But the first steps of those men were successfully carried out, and therefore they were right, while mine failed, which means I had no right to permit myself that step.'”

Porfiry’s handling of Ras is clever if bizarre. He pretends friendship, pretends to have a scrap of evidence and pretends to enjoy debating the philosophy of murder and power just to persuade Ras that he must confess.

“His breath failed and he could not finish. He had listened with indescribable agitation while this man, who had seen right through him, repudiated his own judgement. He dared not, he could not, believe it. Eagerly he had scrutinized the still ambiguous words to find something more precise and definite.”

I thought from quite early in the novel that Ras would end up confessing, but I’ll admit there were times I was almost persuaded that instead he would run away or kill himself or even that a key piece of evidence or witness would turn up so that he could be arrested. However, there are increasing signs towards the end that Ras is headed for prison camp in Siberia.

“He wandered aimlessly. The sun was going down. A particular sort of dejection had recently begun to show itself in him. There was nothing violent or poignant about it, but it carried with it a premonition of perpetuity, weary, endless years of cold deadening depression, a presage of an eternity on a hand’s breadth of ground.”

Dunya doesn’t half attract some horrid men, huh? Although Razumikhin is completely lovely so at least she has him. But Svidrigalov, like Luzhin, goes to great lengths to make himself look better (and Ras look worse) to win Dunya. Of course, she is too smart to be fooled and Svidrigalov, unlike Luzhin, gives up when Dunya rejects him. And Dunya is of course one of two great positive influences on her brother (the other being Sonya). In fairness, Razumikhin tried to be but just couldn’t understand Ras well enough to help him the way the women could.

“‘It was to escape the shame that I wanted to drown myself, Dunya, but the thought came to me, when I was already standing on the bank, that if I had hitherto considered myself strong, then the shame should not frighten me now. Is that pride, Dunya?’
‘Yes, Rodya, it is pride.’
The almost extinct fire flared up again in his lustreless eyes; it was as though he were pleased that he could still be proud.
‘And you don’t think, sister, that I was simply afraid of the water?’ he asked, with an ugly smile, looking into her face.
‘Oh, stop, Rodya!'”

As for that epilogue – talk about redemption and the power of being loved by a good woman! It’s interesting that Sonya is that epitome of the good woman who is beloved by all, considering her background. But then, it seemed to me that at no point did Dostoevsky judge her or even her profession negatively. Those characters who tried to use it against her were all proved wrong for doing so. But of course Ras was also using her unfairly, right up to the last couple of pages.

“Do I love her? … Oh, how low I have fallen! No – I wanted her tears, I wanted to see her terror, and watch her heart being torn and tormented! I wanted something, anything, to cling to, any excuse for delay, some human being to look at!”

So that’s it. Finished. My detailed thoughts on the rest of the book can be found here. After a couple of extra short books as a reward I’m quite tempted to pick up another huge chunk of a book! Have you read Crime and Punishment? What are your thoughts on it?

First published in the Russian Messenger in 1866.

Source: Borrowed from the library.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

This is not only something in my mind

The Small Hand

The Small Hand
by Susan Hill

After I finally got round to reading I’m the King of the Castle last year I decided I really should more of Hill’s work, especially her ghost stories. I bought this on a whim. I suspect it’s not her best.

This is in many ways a classic ghost story. It’s set in modern times but with an older protagonist and recognisable settings (an empty house, fusty libraries, a remote monastery in France, the botanical garden in Oxford) so it has the atmosphere of those Victorian ghost stories.

“All I could hear were the birds settling down, a thrush singing high up on the branches of a walnut tree and blackbirds pinking as they scurried in the undergrowth. I got out of the car and, as I stood there, the birdsong gradually subsided and then there was an extraordinary hush, a strange quietness into which I felt I had broken as some unwelcome intruder.”

Rare book dealer Adam Snow is on his way home from visiting a client when he gets lost in poorly signposted country lanes and finds himself at the entrance to an old abandoned country house. While standing at the edge of the overgrown garden he feels a small child’s hand in his own, but of course there is no child there. This begins both a small obsession with the house and a series of ghostly episodes that threaten to drive Adam crazy or even kill him.

“As I stood in the gathering stillness and soft spring dusk, something happened. I do not much care whether or not I am believed. That does not matter. I know. That is all…I know because if I close my eyes now I feel it happening again, the memory of it is vivid and it is a physical memory. My body feels it, this is not only something in my mind.”

I found this novel a bit predictable though still a good ride and beautifully written, but it didn’t scare me. At all. Which is a real failing in a ghost story. And I even read this alone in bed late at night.

I did like the spooky settings, particularly the mountain-top monastery with its amazing hidden library and the descriptions of stillness and quiet there. I could imagine a fantastic mystery story set there, but maybe I’m just thinking of The Name of the Rose!

Published 2010 by Picador.

Source: I bought it secondhand.

This is a disaster movie directed by Satan

Dead Air

Dead Air
by Iain Banks

Timing, huh? Ever since my GCSE English teacher put beautiful posters of Banks’ book Whit on the classroom wall I have intended to read his books and just not got round to it. When planning my Easter read-a-thon Tim picked this book out from my TBR and I finally became a legitimate Iain Banks fan just a couple of days before learning the very sad news of his terribly ill health.

Ken Nott is a London DJ, an extreme liberal who likes to shock. He’s a good guy, except when it comes to relationships because he is major cheatypants.

The story opens with a hedonistic party. Drugs, scandal, bitching and bad behaviour are cranked up high and then news filters through that a plane has crashed into the World Trade Center. In the aftermath of 9/11, Nott’s brand of humour is right on the edge of uncomfortable, using liberalism as a form of attack. He says a lot of things any left-wing person might say now, 11+ years later, but few would have dared to say in those heightened days.

“That day, sitting in the ruins of the abandoned party…we kept going out onto the terrace to look at the Canary Wharf towers, tall against the skyline less than a mile away, half expecting to see them hit by a plane and crumble with the same awful grandeur as the first tower. ‘It’s Pearl Harbor II,’ we said. ‘They’ll fucking nuke Baghdad.’…’The barbarians have seized the narrative.’ ‘Fuck, the bad guys are re-writing the scripts…this is a disaster movie directed by Satan.'”

Between saying crazy things to the wrong people and being an ass when it comes to women, Nott gets himself into trouble in various ways, so when his life comes under threat, there are all sorts of possible reasons for it, most of which are red herrings.

I must admit I came to like Nott and even found myself thinking he talked a lot of sense. But the story definitely got better when it became a thriller, albeit a literary one. And it was funny. Gotta love a book that’s both literary and funny.

“Liberals…They’re my kind of people. Liberals want niceness. What the hell is wrong with that? And, bless them, they do it in the teeth of such adversity! The world, people, are disappointing them all the time, constantly throwing up examples of what total shites human beings can be, but liberals just take it all…and they keep on going…sending cheques to good causes, turning up at marches, getting politely embarrassed by working-class oafism and just generally getting all hot under the collar…I’m telling you, it’s a sick, sick nation that turned the word ‘liberal’ into an expletive.”

Published 2002 by Little, Brown.

Source: I’m pretty sure I bought it from a real live bookshop but a long time ago now. Too long ago.

Crime and Punishment read-a-long weeks 8 and 9

Read-a-long

The Crime and Punishment read-a-long is hosted by Wallace over at Unputdownables. In weeks eight and nine we read from part 4 chapter 6 to the end of part 5 chapter 4. The official discussion posts are over at Unputdownables.

As always, this discussion will contain spoilers, so only read on if you don’t mind/have already read this far (or further).

Raskolnikov seems to be vacillating wildly over the question of confessing to the police. He even goes to see Porfiry at the police station and seems on the verge of giving in to his provocation when someone else turns up to confess to the murder. But he knows and the police know that the confession is false so it’s only a delay, not an end to his torment. As Porfiry says:

“If I leave one gentleman quite alone, if I don’t arrest him or worry him in any way, but if he knows, or at least suspects, every minute of every hour, that I know everything down to the last detail, and am watching him day and night with ceaseless vigilance, if he is always conscious of the weight of suspicion and fear, he is absolutely certain to lose his head. He will come to me of his own accord.”

Luzhin is currently coming across as a far worse character than Ras. He’s willing to ruin Sonya, and therefore make Katerina and her children even more destitute than they are, just to score a petty point against Ras and have a slim chance of getting Dunya back.

The scene between Sonya and Ras was incredible. One moment I was completely on side with Ras and thinking their fledgling love was beautiful and heartbreaking, then the next moment I’m reminded that he’s a cold-blooded murderer trying to rationalise what he has done. Here is a selection of quotes from Ras:

“I wanted to make myself a Napoleon, and that is why I killed her.”

“I only killed a louse, Sonya, a useless, vile, pernicious louse.”

“Whoever is most audacious is most certainly right…power is given only to the man who dares stoop and take it. There is only one thing needed, only one – to dare…I wanted to have the courage, and I killed.”

“Did I murder the old woman? I killed myself, not that old creature! There and then I murdered myself at one blow, for ever!”

I count all the stuff that might crash

Room

Room
by Emma Donoghue

This is one of those books that was everywhere when it came out and I got put off by all the coverage. Fast forward a couple of years and I finally succumbed! As expected, it was an easy-to-read, gripping story, but it was more psychologically interesting than I had expected.

The story is that of Jack, beginning on his 5th birthday, and is narrated by him. I found his voice irritating at first but it grew on me and it was certainly believable. Jack lives with his Ma in their Room and seems to live a simple, happy life with her. But fairly quickly you see that all is not simple or happy. They never leave Room, they are locked in and a mysterious man comes at night to visit Ma, while Jack hides in Wardrobe.

“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. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero. ‘Was I minus numbers?'”

This is clearly disturbing stuff, chilling even, and having the largely innocent narrator both adds to that and removes enough direct knowledge to make it readable. Had this been Ma’s account rather than Jack’s there would be more horrific details and negative emotions, whereas Jack just accepts the world his mother has built for him in their tiny space because he knows no different.

“How can TV be pictures of real things? I think about them all floating around in Outside Space outside the walls…all the shes and hes…there’s skyscrapers as well and cows and ships and trucks, it’s crammed out there, I count all the stuff that might crash into Room. I can’t breathe right.”

The idea has been well thought through. It is, psychologically speaking, completely believable. Reading it I couldn’t help but think of those shocking news reports about people like Josef Fritzl and that certainly added a chill factor, knowing that this wasn’t a completely unthinkable product of Donoghue’s imagination.

There were certain details that stood out for me, even though they’re not the disturbing bits. The mother’s attitude to nudity is super relaxed, but then they live in one room, after all. Her efforts to provide education and exercise for her son with only TV, a handful of books and grocery packaging are impressive. Jack and his mother do, to some extent, turn to religion to help them cope. She believes in God but I got the impression her faith wasn’t all that strong before Room as the details she has told Jack are a bit vague. It could be his age that has magic confused with miracles but the fact he thought Jesus was only ever a baby like in the picture they have on their wall (from a cereal packet) suggests a lack of fleshing out the faith beyond prayers.

It is quite hard to discuss this book fully without spoilers. I can see how this would make for an interesting book group read. There is a…turning point just over halfway through. When I saw it approaching I didn’t think it would work, narratively speaking, but it actually made the novel much richer, for me at least. Those of you who have read the book will hopefully understand what I am getting at! What did you think?

Published 2010 by Picador.

Source: I bought this secondhand.