It never ceases to amaze me how discussion of a novel serves to round out your perspective. Last night, the local book club I attend was discussing Room by Emma Donoghue (see my brief review below). The discussion focussed on the second half of the book, almost as though the content of the first half was too horrific to entertain. Nearly all thought the author had made good choices, especially in regard to the near absence of time spent on the perpetrator of the crime. The mothers present were nonplussed by the breastfeeding of young Jack well into his fifth year. And most had interesting comments to make about the value of attention and protection that Jack’s Ma is able to provide him prior to their escape.
No one, other than me, was troubled by the risks inherent in choosing to employ a quirky (almost alien) child narrator. But I still worry about it. Such a narrator provides lots of opportunity for an author to make witty and insightful observations. But I think that, increasingly, as the story develops, the reader must begin to lose emotional sympathy for the narrator. This is because we have no idea what goes on in the heads of these peculiar narrators, and thus we have no way of judging the naturalness of what they say and do. They could, in effect, say anything at all.
Most of the characters that we think are well rendered in a novel are not like that. 400 pages in, Jane Eyre is constrained by her character, her history, and our working understanding of what young women are like, to say and do only a limited number of things. That’s what gives a novel a kind of determinism, if that is an appropriate term. The preceding pages push the novel towards its conclusion, whatever that might be. In the case of Room, that cannot happen. Which, I think, is why the second half feels, to me, like it is meandering, and also explains why the tidying that occurs at the very end might be considered unsatisfactory.
So, once again a lively and friendly book club meeting has helped me sharpen some of my intuitions about aspects of a novel into a more or less coherent view that I can now test on my future reading. (I may well yet revise this view considerably.) Surely it is one of the reasons I enjoy these meetings so much.