Ripped from the Headlines (A Pair of Reviews)

Cover of "Room: A Novel"

Cover of Room: A Novel

Somehow a month has slipped by without me noticing that I haven’t been posting reviews; I’ve been posting about books, but not reviewing anything I’ve read. I’ve been doing a lot of “comfort reading” lately, I think, as the school year shifts into its manic closing gear, rereading books by authors I like instead of seeking out anything new.

But now that streak has come to an end. Like the last review I posted, I somehow ended up reading two books that both take horrific news stories as their starting place and then try to find their ways inside the minds of those involved. Both have unconventional narrators with distinct voice, and both are told with narrative techniques you don’t see everyday in modern fiction: the point-of-view of a five-year-old, the epistolary form most common a hundred years ago. Finally, both try to answer the unanswerable, and watch their characters try to construct their lives after major terrifying catastrophes.

Room: A Novel came out last year and quickly became a much-talked about book, for all the reasons I described above, but I think also because Donoghue not only conceived such a startling narrative structure, but she executed it brilliantly, in a novel that keeps you turning every page until it’s finished, but also lingers in your memory beyond the final scene. Jack, the five-year-old narrator, is a character for the ages, with a distinctive voice but also such a richly drawn persona. Jack and his Ma live in Room, where they have been kept prisoner for seven years by the man they call Old Nick, who kidnapped Ma when she was nineteen. The first half of the book takes place inside Room, and the second half after their Great Escape, showing their tentative reintegration into the world Jack has never known. The second half of the story is the one we in the general public often glimpse, like in the case of Jaycee Dugard and Elizabeth Smart, but never from the perspective of a child involved, and not in this detail.

We Need to Talk About Kevin: A Novel (P.S.) is a novel from the viewpoint of Eva Khatchadourian, who is writing letters to her estranged husband about their son, Kevin, who killed eleven people in a school massacre. I first read about the books years ago in a blog post, but only picked it up this week. Unlike Room, I didn’t stay up all night to finish it, and while Kevin is a book I do think is well-done, it’s a pricklier, thornier book to really say you “like.” Eva is a a prickly character herself, and it is that sharpness that she questions about herself, whether it was a maternal failing on her part that created her son, a sociopathic monster. Eva knows she will never know “why,” just like Dylan Klebold’s mother will never know why, but of course, that doesn’t mean she can stop asking herself, her husband or her son. Kevin is a also a novel about maternal ambivalence, and whether it’s okay to say the things we all fear mothers really want to say: that we regret having our children, that we love one more than the other or our husbands better than our children. Instead, we are supposed to be super-moms, writing letters to our babies, not yelling at them or wishing we could escape. I think every mother can at least agree that we have those moments of terror where we fear we truly are bad mothers, and the horror of Kevin is that Eva has a staggering amount of evidence to say that yes, perhaps she is a horrible mother after all.

So if you want to torment yourself with what it means to actually think you might be a terrible mother, or with the horror of what might happen to your children some day, feel free to pick up both or either of these! But also, if you want some thought-provoking and amazing fiction, give either of these a try.


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