Despatches from a room: In these stories set in confined spaces, imagination helps decipher an inaccessible world
In this month's #MyBookshelves column, Jai Arjun Singh writes about stories centered on immobilised people in an unnatural situation, using what resources they have to stay productive and to find a form of escape: whether it involves travelling into the past, moving towards physical freedom, or re-evaluating the mechanics of an outside world that is temporarily out of reach.
In this monthly column, Jai Arjun Singh scours through his bookshelves to pick out titles that have impacted him at various times in his life. Read more from the series here.
In these strange times, as some of us struggle to remember what the world outside looked like until a couple of months ago (or if it even existed the way we recall it), and as parents try to find new ways to keep their children active — while also trying to keep their own thoughts from falling into the abyss — I have been thinking of Emma Donoghue’s Booker-shortlisted novel Room.
Told in the voice of Jack, five years old as the book opens, this is a story about a boy living alone with his mother in a small room, which neither of them ever seems to leave. Naturally they keep themselves busy: play games, clean and cook, watch TV together (he believes the things he sees on the screen have nothing to do with their world). Since we readers are privy only to Jack’s very limited perspective, it takes a while for us to conjecture what is really going on here — why he thinks the room is a planet unto itself, and why it’s such a struggle for his mother to explain what Outside is like.
When I first read Room, I saw it as a very dark allegory for certain aspects of “normal” childhood, including a close relationship with a parent. As a fable about growing up, and the agoraphobic terror-excitement of preparing to meet a new world, it reminded me a bit of Michael Ondaatje’s wonderful The Cat’s Table, in which an 11-year-old boy makes a long ship journey from Sri Lanka to England in the 1950s. Needless to say, this ship is much larger than the Room that Jack and his mother occupy, and there are colourful characters, friends, little adventures on board; but it is still a circumscribed space where the protagonist learns about himself, what lies beyond the world he has so far known, and what might happen when he gets there.
There is no dearth of other stories set in confined spaces, involving people who are isolated in one way or another. (Obligatory pedantic reminder: one doesn’t need to be physically isolated or quarantined to feel “alone” — people can be achingly lonely or cut off in crowds too.) There are books where a character, adrift, must use fantasy to nourish or save themselves — as do the titular characters in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi or Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. There are more forthright meetings between fantasy and madness, as in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s brilliant short story “The Yellow Wall-Paper”, about a woman growing obsessed with the wallpaper in a room where she may or may not have been imprisoned: here is a seemingly bleak tale that also offers a form of hope and validation — a sense that a screen (or paper covering) has been ripped apart, and new possibilities revealed for women who are being bullied or oppressed by men.
And there are doomsday books about things comparable to our current real-world situation: such as the passages in Max Brooks’ massively entertaining zombie apocalypse novel World War Z where privileged people discover that however carefully they build their fortresses and stock their provisions, they can’t stay forever untouched by a raging plague — something that was also the central theme of Edgar Allan Poe’s iconic “The Masque of the Red Death”.
On a lighter note, a very enjoyable “isolation novel” I recently read was Josephine Tey's 1951 mystery The Daughter of Time, in which Tey’s series detective, Inspector Alan Grant, finds himself bedridden in hospital, restless, with little to occupy his mind. This changes when a glimpse of a portrait of King Richard III leads Grant into a cerebral investigation of the man regarded as one of history’s major villains, famously caricatured by Shakespeare (Laurence Olivier’s celebrated stage performance as Richard was fresh in the public memory when this book was written) and denounced by generations of historians. What was the truth, Grant wonders, behind the disappearance of Richard’s two little nephews, and was there an injustice done to his reputation?
To fully enjoy this dissection of very distant history, you probably need basic interest in the period, and it’s useful to have Wikipedia at hand to read up on the litany of royals with similar names. But what makes this such a compelling and unusual murder mystery is that we never leave Grant’s hospital room. He isn’t exactly alone — nurses fuss over him, occasional visitors bring him books and indulge his theories, a young scholar plays apprentice and researcher — but this is in essence a very interior book, as far as one can get from a detective story involving action and legwork.
On the face of it, there is little in common between a Room and a Daughter of Time. One is an often morbid narrative about two people who are victims of a horrible crime (with one of them not even aware of it), while the other is a breezy historical mystery that investigates diabolical events but still manages to be a droll, comforting read (even the most dastardly villains here have been dead for centuries and pose no threat to Inspector Grant). But both books, and some of the others mentioned here, are about immobilised people in an unnatural situation, using what resources they have to stay productive and to find a form of escape: whether it involves traveling into the past, moving towards physical freedom, or re-evaluating the mechanics of an outside world that is temporarily out of reach.
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