Yet, when child-narration succeeds, it succeeds not because the child in question stays a blank, an innocent, but because she rapidly acquires her own specificity: because we see the adult person within her forming and transforming, struggling to get out. In his 2005 masterpiece Tideland, filmmaker Terry Gilliam tells the story of a lost child, Jeliza-Rose, who finds herself orphaned in a run-down farmhouse on a featureless plain when both of her parents die from drug addiction. Despite these dire circumstances, she subsists on her imaginings, and her beautiful visions of sentient Barbie doll heads, talking squirrels, floods, and rabbit holes share equal time with the setting's increasingly grisly realities (her neighbors include an overzealous taxidermist, and the subject of a botched lobotomy with a stash of dynamite under his bed). In a wonderfully weird introduction to the picture, Gilliam explains, that he's finally found his inner child, "and she's a little girl." It's clear from watching the movie that this is true. Even amid disaster and horror, Jeliza-Rose quickly reveals she is no tabula rasa for viewers to project their own child-selves onto. Like Gilliam himself, she has a distinct, idiosyncratic sensibility that would be recognizable no matter what world we saw refracted through her eyes.
It isn't just what she sees, but the way she sees it.
Emma Donoghue's novel Room starts with a similar premise. The novel's narrator is Jack, a five year old boy, who is growing up in a grotesquely disturbing home environment: an eleven-by-eleven shed in a maniac's backyard. His mother, we learn, was kidnapped and imprisoned there at age nineteen, and since then, she's been raped almost daily by the psychopath (referred to only as "Old Nick," not his real name), who keeps her alive on a meager diet of frozen foods, canned goods, and pain pills. But, like Jeliza-Rose, he's never known a normal life, so to him, "Room" is the world: magical at some moments, frightening at others, but never monolithically vile.
In my opinion, the best moments of this novel unfold in this setting, a place at once otherworldly and plainly, grittily observed. It's clear that the story is set in the contemporary era -- Jack watches Dora the Explorer on TV -- yet the touches of pop culture, rather than grounding us, make the situation seem even more surreal and impossibly removed. Room is a realm where the traditional categories of realism versus fantasy no longer clearly apply. Divorced from the context of larger civilization, Jack and his mother are forced to construct their own society, their own rituals and meaning, and although these behaviors often seem escapist and deluded, confronting their daily deprivations would not just be unlivable for the mother, but incomprehensible for Jack. Instead, she teaches him to live in life as they know it, without an inkling of anything beyond the contents of their cork-lined cell.
A person's world is defined, we begin to see in Room, not by objective "truth" or even the sum total of knowledge available to humans somewhere, but by the knowledge passed down by authority figures within his particular community. The whole of North America was once unknown to Europeans; the whole of Europe was once unknown to North Americans. And Jack's mother doesn't speak Spanish, so to Jack, Spanish is not a "real language." For him, food or books or toys don't exist until they get inside Room; the idea of their manufacture or purchase is just as mind-boggling as a time before the universe's creation. He has no idea that Old Nick's nightly visits to his mom's mattress had anything to do with his own conception. And fairy tales are just as real as anything on the evening news. This is not magical realism, but reality as the speaker knows it. And, if Donoghue lingered for longer in Room, allowing Jack to engage with this reality as he grows up (or even just grows a little older), we would come to learn just as much about the particularities of his character as we would about a kid, say, in the Middle Ages, who treats bloodletting as a hated inevitability in service of a greater good (like modern orthodontics), but who still has other qualities, other traits and interests, that make him distinct.
Unfortunately, just as Jack is beginning to come into focus, rebelling against certain of his mom's restrictions (tellingly, his first disobedient act is to come out of the wardrobe where he sleeps at night to take a good look at his father/captor) while continuing to accord with others, Donoghue suddenly moves the plot in a whole new direction. Jack's mom begins to dismantle the ideas she's imparted to him since birth, fessing up that other boys and girls, sky and trees, are not "just TV," but real things, just past the door. And SPOILER ALERT, she's planning an escape.
It's at this point that, for me, Jack as a character begins to recede. His first experiences with the outside world, including a chase sequence where he leaps out of a moving truck, are page-turning stuff, and Donoghue makes a good point by showing him as more terrified and homesick than anything else as he encounters people and situations that just weeks earlier would have seemed as strange to him as taking a trip to Mars. But after a few pages of listening to him wax nostalgic about Rug and Sundaytreat (the one special item they got to ask Old Nick for each week), I realized, with a sinking feeling, that Donoghue really had no idea who this kid was. Jack's actions and interactions, his desires and fears, are profoundly predictable, scars left by his confinement. But there's nothing more personal under them, no sensibility at work that we could recognize even if his experiences had been different.
And so Donoghue switches gears. Jack becomes a passive observer of his mother's struggle to re-acclimate herself, and the story suddenly becomes something I'd flip past on Lifetime. In what's easily the worst scene I've read in awhile, Jack throws a temper tantrum just before his mother is supposed to be interviewed for TV -- so she brings him with her (to which I must say: WTFFF?), and he sits, silently listening and hardly commenting even in his narration, as she delivers seven and a half pages of exposition and directly stated thematic material. This is a disaster for the novel, not just because of the laziness of the fictive technique, but because it betrays the novel's central conceit: that Donoghue is at least attempting to relate this from the perspective of a plausible five-year-old.
OK, I get that Jack is smart, and that he's been trained to parrot back what people say on talk shows (it was part of how his mother taught him vocabulary back in Room). But being able to parrot back what a person said is a far cry from understanding it, or even finding it interesting. And, with the swirling newness of everything that would go into this event -- the lights, the cameras, the wires, the boom mike, the tech guys, the clipboards, the makeup -- I find it completely absurd to suggest that Jack would sit there, attentively listening to every word spoken, without ever becoming distracted or having a strong reaction of any kind. Donoghue has completely lost interest in him as a character, and it really fucking shows. If he were a real child, the treatment the author gives him in this scene would be akin to forgetting to pick him up at day care and leaving him there for four days.
The book never recovers from this huge misstep, in my opinion, not even with its lyrical tearjerker ending (though I'll admit that passage, a callback to Jack's mother's favorite storybook Goodnight Moon, is crudely effective even in its obviousness). And once I shut the cover, I found myself wondering why it all had to go so awry. Donoghue created a wonderful kid in the early chapters. It's just criminal that she let him die of total neglect.