I have finally found another book club! I am very happy about that. It’s nice to have a bunch of ladies to read and gossip with again. The first book I read for the club was one on my Women’s Prize Project list that I had dreaded a bit because of its subject matter: a young woman held captive for years, together with the child she conceived by her rapist. Thankfully, while I was emotionally vested in the story, it wasn’t as grim and horrible as I had feared. I will mention some things that happen in the second half of the book, so if you don’t want anything spoiler-y, you might want to stop reading now.
First, I have to say that I was surprised by the fact that the story is told from the child’s perspective. I didn’t expect it, and I was skeptical at first. I think it’s very hard to portray realistic child narrators, and since I have a child the same age as the narrator, I knew that I couldn’t help but be critical. But I felt that Donoghue pulled it off well. The particular voice of the narrator took a little while to get used to, but aside from that, I found it convincing. There were a few times when I thought the child acted older than his age, but heck, the circumstances would naturally have him act older at times. Simultaneously, they explain his naiveté at other times. All book club members agreed that it was a good thing we got to see everything from the child’s perspective, because otherwise, the story probably would have been too devastating. This way, we had some distance between us and the constant rape and threats.
Second, I was surprised that mother and child escaped halfway through the story. I assumed that would happen at the end, and again I was skeptical. But Donoghue proved me wrong here as well. It was fascinating to read about the adjustments to real life the two, especially the child, had to make. I would have loved more detail here, but the child narrator was the perfect way to keep some things relatively superficial. More detail probably would have bogged down the story. As it is, we got just enough to keep us thinking: the boy’s need to learn how to walk up and down the stairs or his eyes needing to adjust because they are not used to seeing anything at distance. There were a lot of little things that never occurred to us would be affected by the deprivation both mother and son experienced.
Naturally, the child also has to adjust mentally. His mother had to make up a lot of stories to explain a world that supposedly consisted of only one room. Most of those stories are of course unrealistic, and so the boy is in a constant state of wonder after the escape—much to the exasperation of many of the adults around him who are constantly confounded by his skewed sense of the world. It was a bit heartbreaking to see how well he could spell and do math, but how he didn’t know how to interact with other children on the playground.
My edition of the book came with an interview with Donoghue in which she explained her inspiration for the story. Not surprisingly, it was based on a real event, and sadly, most readers will probably have heard of that or a similar story. What did surprise me was that according to Donoghue, some readers thought she exploited the people who were held captive by copying their story. Personally, I had no issue with it; if anything, I felt greater compassion reading this book than reading a sensationalist news story (a point touched upon in the book, when some of the boy’s innocent observations make it obvious how hard people have to work to uphold the victims’ privacy).
Book Club verdict: The book is well worth reading and, in my opinion, deserves its spot on the 2011 shortlist for the Bailey’s Prize. And as I have been told by the one movie-savvy mom in our group, the movie is pretty good, too.