Writing this novel has to be considered an achievement, or possibly a feat. The inspired choice of five year old Jack as the narrator presents innumerable challenges that Donoghue meets valiantly. It also has advantages. It allows her to treat of a situation so horrible that one rather wishes it were not even imaginable let alone possible. Through Jack’s naïve eyes we persevere, if only for his sake. But it is hard going, claustrophobic, and emotionally stifling.
The second half of the novel opens up new possibilities. Here things begin to lose direction, to meander, to go this way and that without a clear purpose. Maybe that is to be expected, but it may also have something to do with the downside of Jack’s narrative voice. Once his world expands the voice becomes much less persuasive, either too knowing, fey, or twee. It’s a risk for any writer, I think, though Donoghue does manage to present at least a few brilliant moments. I especially liked the utter incomprehension of what has occurred found in the voice of a woman commiserating with Jack’s grandmother: ‘”Well, I don’t know. I spent a week in a monastery in Scotland once…[and]…it was so peaceful.” I also liked Jack’s step-grandfather or ‘Steppa’ who seems to have a natural connection with Jack.
The ending is something of a disappointment, if only because the emotional and narrative closure it brings seems antithetical to the psychological scars the atrocities committed would have induced. Of course if closure is what you are looking for—the tidy settling of our exfoliated emotional skin like dust in an unused room—then Donoghue’s otherwise intriguing tale will fully satisfy. I just wish the focus of such a narrative feat truly were unimaginable.