4 out of 5 stars
Cut to the Chase:
The parts of this book that are good are flat 0ut amazing. The first half of the book in particular is riveting. Told entirely from the perspective of a 5-year-old boy (Jack) who is trapped in an 11ft by 11ft room with his mother, both of them held captive by a kidnapper/rapist Jack refers to as Old Nick, their daily routines, discovering what their world entails (and what it doesn’t), is just mesmerizing. However, the second half (spoilers ahead), from the escape attempt to everything that comes after becomes, quite often, frustrating. It feels like what our narrator understands (and doesn’t) isn’t growing so much as shifting/jumping back and forth (and it’s completely unclear how much of this is intentional versus meant to shown the narrator’s confused state). The pacing necessarily feels slower, and though I still finished it, it was far less compelling. Still a very well written, creative, emotional read, just ended on more of a whimper (especially compared to the fantastic opening).
Jack has just turned five. He’s excited and narrates us through what his day’s like: he gets up and eats cereal (counting out how many flakes), there are morning exercises and physical education where they pick the games they’ll be going through, they bathe together, they only watch a certain, limited amount of television (because it rots your brains and turns you into a zombie) they eat lunch at a certain time, he nurses when she allows him to, they have dinner, they sing songs and read from their very limited library, and then he goes to sleep in Wardrobe, to wait for Old Nick to come, the door beep, beep, beeping, followed by his Ma’s bed creaking.
There’s an overwhelming creepy-eeriness to the beginning chapters, that everything seems to familiar: Dora the Explorer on television, a birthday cake to celebrate… and yet also, so constrained. That all of this happens within a tiny room that only has Skylight as a source of natural light, that everything in the room is so familiar and steady, that they are each not only objects, but named objects that are part of this boy’s life: Bed, Wardrobe, Skylight, Meltedy Spoon. That the little boy seems to think that everything Outside is barren, fake, like what’s seen on TV, and his absolute lack of awareness about who Old Nick is, or what he’s done to them (that he counts the number of times the bed creaks on the nights when he can’t “switch off” and fall asleep in time).
The bond between mother and son is initially part of what holds this book together. The lengths she’s gone to to ensure that Jack is educated and kept safe, that he’s fairly happy, and given the circumstances, even well-adjusted. Truly, the beginning half is mesmerizing.
So much so that I perhaps had unfair expectations for the second half.
The escape attempt really seems a little… not just far-fetched, but hard to understand. Given the level of care the mother has given Jack thus far, it’s tough to believe that her plan ends up depending so much on Jack pretending to be sick, Jack pretending to be dead, Jack lying trapped in a rolled up rug, ready to jump out of a truck (assuming Old Nick still drives a truck so many years later), Jack finding help, Jack escaping Old Nick if necessary, with Jack just… risking so much. Perhaps it’s the situation, and it’s meant to be understandable, but there are quite a few decisions that we don’t really get to delve into because the book is constrained by our 5-year-old protagonist.
There are also times when it feels as though Jack’s understanding jumps back and forth (he identifies that his mother is spitting something and then in the narrative it becomes vomit and it’s continually unclear what he “gets” and what he “doesn’t get”, especially after his escape, he seems to jump between kind of understanding some of what the doctors and others warm him, to completely not getting boundaries, etc, depending on the situation). Some of this could be explained away by trauma, etc, but it becomes increasingly difficult to know where the line really is and to understand what’s going on.
That said, the first half was truly riveting, and the second half wasn’t bad, just dragged a bit more in terms of both pacing and plot/conclusion.
Comparison to Other Books/Authors:
It’s hard not to compare this to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, not because the plots are overly similar, but merely because the creativity and allure of having such a different narrator (a captive boy unaware of the outside world in this case, an autistic boy in the latter) becomes a double-edged sword. What’s intriguing in both books also ultimately constrains how well we’re able to understand the broader landscape of the story, and the constraints in both books become tiring despite how well-written the books are, as time progresses. I enjoyed both, but in both cases felt like the beginning was more well-done and satisfying, than the ending halves.