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There's a moment in Emma Donoghue's stunning "Room" -- one of many during which wild boars could not tear a reader away -- that poignantly melds the novel's equal doses of horror and hope.
Ma, an otherwise nameless woman who has just escaped from a psychopath who for seven years has held her captive in a soundproof cell, is reunited with her father, who is repelled by her 5-year-old son, Jack, because he was fathered by the captor. Jack, who narrates the story, doesn't understand the nuances of their exchange, but he understands this: His beloved Ma not only is not ashamed of him, but she considers him the light of her life.
This fierce, brave, complicated young woman is one of the most memorable mothers ever crafted by a fiction writer. Yet she stands in the shadow of an even more vivid character -- Jack himself.
Despite the fact that Jack has spent his whole life in a cell, he is a happy child, albeit one with no concept of the world beyond the place he calls Room, which his mother has tried to make a place of peace and learning. She has him hide in a closet when their creepy captor, Old Nick (that reference to the devil is well put), drops by to cajole, threaten and rape her. Jack glimpses her fear and sorrow, but thankfully, does not comprehend them.
Donoghue's handling of the tricky narration, with its child's point of view, is brilliant. Never once does Jack's chatty voice ring false. Here's how he describes a night of TV:
"I choose a cooking show tonight, it's not like real food, they don't have any cans. The she and the he smile at each other and do a meat with a pie on top ... Then I switch over to the fitness planet where persons in underwear with all machines have to keep doing things over and over, I think they're locked in. That's over soon and it's the knockerdowners, they make houses into different shapes. ... Houses are like lots of Rooms stuck together, TV persons stay in them mostly but sometimes they go in their outsides and weather happens to them."
After a harrowing escape, the two reenter the world, which is fascinated by their story. Safe again, Ma falls apart for a while. Meanwhile, Jack isn't quite sure that this vast, ceilingless world is better than Room. His adjustment is both heartbreaking and hilarious.
Not only is "Room" a ripping good tale, but it manages to touch on questions about the limits of human endurance, good and evil, and the existence of God. As Jack says, "I thought all the weird things happened yesterday but there's lots more today."
Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.