By Emma Donoghue, Little, Brown and Company, 2010, Hardcover, 321 pages, $24.99
A young woman in her late teens is approached by an older man. They meet on the grounds of her college campus. Visibly upset he tells her that his dog, which is not in the immediate vicinity, is sick and having some kind of seizure. By all appearances the man is sincere. Will she please help? Moved by his plea, the unsuspecting woman goes with him. This seemingly innocuous encounter is the first stage of an initiation in horror.
It is a small one-room structure like any unremarkable garage, tool shed or work shop found in the backyards of many suburban homes. Its specific situation amid dense shrubbery hides it from the street and from the prying eyes of surrounding neighbors. With great care and malefic intent, this nondescript but profoundly deranged man has made of this little building a nearly impenetrable, sound-proofed dungeon into which he has immured his innocent captive. A formidable door -- the only entrance and exit -- is controlled by a sophisticated electronic lock to which only the presiding ogre knows the combination. He has essentially god-like control over everything vital: the provision of food and modest utilities. Special requests or emergent needs might be considered but only at his whim. During his nocturnal visits, which occur at unpredictable intervals, the woman is repeatedly sexually assaulted. Eventually she gives birth to Jack who becomes the focus of all the parental love and concern she can possibly muster and offer a child in those extraordinarily cramped and cruel conditions. Of course Jack knows of no other world but that claustral container.
This book opens on his birthday and Jack declares: "Today I'm five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I'm changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero." Many items in Jack's circumscribed universe are referred to by proper names as though they were somehow animated. His mother, now 26 years of age, does her best each day to enkindle the energy needed to spend as many of her waking moments focused on her son, her sole loving companion. "Old Nick" their captor who holds them in thrall has shown little interest in his progeny. Jack's mother routinely sequesters him in the wardrobe when electronic beeps announce Old Nick's imminent entry through the bolted door.
Heroically she has ensured that Jack can speak clearly, sing the lyrics of numerous songs, that he can appreciate stories from their few books. Jack is bright, precocious even, and has a vocabulary far beyond his years. Daily he and his mother play, make things out of scraps of cardboard and other refuse, prepare meals with whatever food is available. They have a routine, more or less. Sometimes they run about a most restricted track within the tiny space and at times they scream at the top of their lungs close to the skylight in the ceiling that tops their exiguous existence. Nobody on the outside ever hears a sound.
Jack has never been beyond the locked door. He has never been in the fresh air, the sunshine, the rain, the moonlit night. One conduit to the outside world is a decrepit television set that picks up a few channels. Jack grows attached to cartoon characters and other programs he views. But they are all the same to him. They are alive in one sense yet unreal and removed from all he knows. "I'd love to watch TV all the time, but it rots our brains. Before I came down from Heaven Ma left it on all day long and got turned into a zombie that's like a ghost but walks thump thump. So now she switches off after one show, then the cells multiply again in the day and we can watch another show after dinner and grow more brains in our sleep."
And there are days when Jack's mother is simply not up to anything. She is incommunicative. She is "Gone": "Ma's never gone more than one day. I don't know what I do if I wake up tomorrow and she's still Gone." Toothaches compound her desperation and comprise a subtle harrowing element in this superbly crafted work of suspense. Entrapped, what does one do, how does one cope with mounting pain when medication that can bring relief might not be delivered by only one sadistic madman?
Dare to venture into Jack's world. Although a heinous violation precipitates this story, there is at its heart an abundance of compassion and courage that buoys the spirit and ultimately brings deliverance and redemption. Donoghue's novel is a powerful exploration and celebration of emotional strength, of hope, and of enduring love.