This is almost certainly a play you have to see onstage to appreciate properly. Sadly for me, I have neither the money nor the opportunities. Boo.
It's...moreThis is almost certainly a play you have to see onstage to appreciate properly. Sadly for me, I have neither the money nor the opportunities. Boo.
It's very much an actors' play. The first 40 pages were slow to say the least. I read them very quickly because O'Rowe is such a good writer - the dialogue just slips off the page - and he toys with expectations masterfully. The setting is a middle-class respectable home (aren't they always in drama) in Ireland. Adele is bringing her boyfriend, the slighter older Dennis, home to meet her parents, except that she keeps getting distracted by her needy best friend, Belinda, who's being messed around by her boyfriend, Gary. Dennis appears to know just a little too much about the family, who are still haunted by the loss of their young son Jonathan when Addie was nine, but things only really start getting weird when Dennis appears to know just a little too much about the family background.
It's mostly a mystery, which the other (official) reviews seem afraid to divulge. What happened to Jonathan all those years ago? Is it something to do with the fact that his and Addie's mother, Margaret, only sleeps on the couch? What about their father and his fits of rage? What about what Addie overheard the night he disappeared and never came back? Characterisation and development are kind of sacrificed for mystery and atmosphere in this one, but it was still an eerie, fascinating, and compelling read.
I always guess. I can't stop myself. Was it the father's violence? Was it the mother's? Was it really just a confused mistake on the daughter's part? Are they just lying to her? Well, this play was great for that - always giving one impression, and then organically sliding away from it to another, hinting at a picture of a very disturbed family. I read this all in one sitting, totally addicted and desperate to know what happened. O'Rowe got me, too - I didn't guess (despite the use of a rather cringe-inducing common trope).
Then - the revelation came. A lot of the reviews have talked about the thematic concerns of the play - about he limits of devotion, parenting, family tragedy and guilt. Well...I didn't really get any of that.The problem is, with this material in such obviously assured hands (this is my first O'Rowe play, but the professionalism and the intrigue was truly something), it's hard not to want -- more.
The main revelation comes in its penultimate scene (or one of them - it's all set in one location and there are a combination of very long and not so long scenes, and there's not much of a sense of the passage of time except the gap between Act 1+2 so I'm not absolutely sure how they divide up). The questions that this incredibly dark and probing twist throws up are huge and complex and important, and had me absolutely gasping for breath, as well as (an incredibly rare one for jaded old me, so prone to roll my eyes and say, c'mon, it's not that bad," or, "that's what I waited all this time for?" Instead, this one had me saying, "wow, this is too dark for me, this is really testing my limits..." which was a new, strange thing, but at the same time, it was completely well-earned and interesting. (view spoiler)[Was Jonathan just a bad kid, or a deeply flawed one who felt that his parents didn't love him? Did his rape of Margaret stem from a desire to be loved, to punish her for not loving him, or pure sadism and hatred? Had Michael always had the violent hatred of Jonathan building up, or was it only an impulsive reaction to his horrendous crime against Margaret? To what extent do the characters feel responsible, or wish to distance themselves from responsibility? What will it change between Margaret and Addie, and Michael and Addie? (hide spoiler)]
As you can see from the spoiler tag: a ton of questions, all of them incredibly provocative and harrowing to even consider. My underlying and fundamental problem with the play is that what comes before is nowhere near as complex or really as interesting. I understand the stylistic choice to keep Belinda and Gary offstage until Act 2, but that made it hard for me to care when it all went down. Dennis was basically just a loop into the story, to tease the characters' back stories, but there was nothing all that meaty about the play until The Revelation (at the 80% mark - which meant that we'd spent something like an hour minimum of being teased, misdirected and being given ~thematic parallels that don't really mean much in the grand scheme of the story when you're mostly just reading to find out a solution). When the solution comes and you suddenly want more from the characters, you want to know how they're going to relate to each other and how they ever did in the first place, and then it just ends. This play is like a really interesting phone conversation when the other person tells you something you're dying to discuss and then they have to go but, instead of saying goodbye, they just hang up. Worth your time? Probably -- the very last moment will stick with me for a long, long time. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
3 stars? 2.5? 3.5? 4? 2? It's up to you. I am at a loss.
After roughly five months, I've finally finished Room. And, well, this review is going to be a...more3 stars? 2.5? 3.5? 4? 2? It's up to you. I am at a loss.
After roughly five months, I've finally finished Room. And, well, this review is going to be a mess, because I have literally never had so many mixed feelings about a novel in all my reading life. Some people call this brilliant, an incredibly moving portrayal of survival, adaptation and the mother-child bond. Others call this a saccharine, exploitative, manipulative little journey, all horrible things packaged up for the Oprah's book club audience (no offence, Oprah viewers). And I...am exactly in the middle.
I loved Ma. I love a good mother, I must admit, I'm a total sucker. Good mothers are rare to find in literature - for obvious reasons, writers prefer their mothers emotionally distant if not downright abusive, fraught with terrible back stories, cruel to their offspring, deluded and undermining. I thought Donoghue handled Ma perfectly: she'd been through absolute hell, and she really was doing her best all the way through. Ma is an intensely sympathetic character, and, thankfully, not just because of the horrors she's been through. She adores Jack (when she says to one character, "he is the world to me", you know she absolutely means it, and Donoghue totally earned the intense love that there is between Jack and Ma) and it made me almost tear up a couple of times. Theirs was a really deep relationship from her side, a great centerpiece for the novel, as Ma understandably struggles with being Jack's mother and being her own person.
I thought that Donoghue handled the first half, where Jack and Ma are trapped in Room, really, really well. I loved Ma too much to watch her be raped and beaten but, when my Goodreads friends had mentioned the obliqueness with which Donoghue handles the subject, I feared that it would be all very British, where the horrors are shuffled off-screen to allow us to continue with our cosy lives. Thankfully, it wasn't. Donoghue actually does the thing that many people who talk about writing on such icky subjects as rape/murder/abduction claim to do, which is to focus on the emotional aftermath as a substitute for the nasty details. I was also fascinated by the original and surprising way that Donoghue depicts their life in Room, where Jack thinks that nothing is real except what's in Room, they do Physical Education with their very limited furniture, and read The Runaway Bunny over and over.
Then...Jack. Okay, warning: here be a minor spoiler that is revealed at exactly 50% of the way on my Kindle. It's (view spoiler)[Jack and his mother's escape from Room (hide spoiler)]. That's where the novel kind of falters for me, even though it couldn't have either concluded in Room or with their (view spoiler)[escape (hide spoiler)]. It needed this section but I found it easily the most unconvincing, with a lot of loose ends. For example, Ma's relationship with her own father just sort of tailed off - for a writer that had put so much thought into showing Ma's thought processes and feelings even when Jack himself (who narrates) wasn't aware of them. It seemed weird that Donoghue would forget about, for instance, Ma's father, or never really explore what drove her to do what she did at the 3/4 mark ((view spoiler)[her suicide attempt, of course (hide spoiler)]), which sounds stupid, because the poor woman had been through so much, damn it, but I wanted more coherence and specificity about it. As it was, it felt more of a contrivance (!) to separate Jack and his ma.
Jack's voice also got pretty irritating in part two. I agree with some reviewers that it might've been more convincing for Jack to be 8-10 rather than five. It's a difficult balancing act and, unlike the wonderful development of Ma through Jack's eyes, Donoghue doesn't quite pull it off. The little guy confuses brought/brung continuously, among other things, and can't understand the most basic idioms (some of which I'm surprised wouldn't come up in the conversations between Jack and Ma in Room), yet comes out with poetic noble-idiot (forgive the phrase) observations on real life, such as:
I guess the time gets spread very thin like butter all over the world, the roads and houses and playgrounds and stores, so there's only a little smear of time on each place, then everyone has to hurry on to the next bit, or:
In Room we knowed what everything was called but in the world there's so much, persons don't even know the names.
It felt a lot like the Oscar-baity jokes about the noble character who is also challenged, stunted, deprived or childlike in some way but teaches the shallow and materialistic people around them the true meaning of life. Donoghue satirised the way that the media coverage called Jack an angel or a saint, but I thought she really fell into this gross and annoying archetype later in the novel. Also, people have been complimenting Donoghue on her originality and, yes, the first section especially was very, very unique (it's literally just Ma and Jack in a tiny room, and they build an entire world within it, in a way that is interesting, surprising and hopeful), but this gradually slipped away in the second part, which became much more about an unusual child adjusting to a world which seems alien to them, a far duller and less imaginative endeavour.
With that said, it comes to a pretty emotional end. My overall impression was of a book that's not perfect, with both extreme highs and eye-rolling lows. Room is an experiment, not one that always works - neither an unqualified success nor failure. I'll say this, though: I wanted Jack and his ma to be happy. I'd like a sequel where they did nothing but go to the beach, eat chocolate and live happily ever after. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
'You're the meanest of all! You're the one who drugged me!'
I almost wish I didn't "have" to write this review, because, though this is a flawed book,...more'You're the meanest of all! You're the one who drugged me!'
I almost wish I didn't "have" to write this review, because, though this is a flawed book, it's a book that gave me one of the best reading experiences I've had: a thrilling, searing and disturbing little novel that totally hooked me.
Okay, so I admit, I came to this novel slightly prejudiced. I have grown to absolutely hate the narrative choice of constructing the entire plot around one secret that the protagonist refuses to divulge. Charm & Strange is an incredibly well-written variant on this plot, but it couldn't quite make me overcome my hatred of this deliberately elliptical way of pretending at discussing an issue without discussing it. However, due to Kuehn's incredibly readable "psychological study" of her main characters, this cosiness was, thankfully, almost entirely removed.
Still, I wish that Win's big secret had come out a little sooner, because I wanted more. I wanted more of Win's realisations, Win's family - especially his older brother, Keith, who was probably my favourite character in the novel, and his and Drew's dynamic was the undoubted highlight - and the impact of what had actually happened, rather than Kuehn's intriguing and well written but ultimately frustrating writing around these subjects. I enjoyed her crafty and incredibly disciplined tactic of peeling away layers of Win's psyche, but there was a point when it just wasn't enough for me and I wanted more clarity.
As a result, I just COULDN'T get hooked to the present ("matter") sections. I found that I was skimming them without intending to, in an attempt to get back to Win's claustrophobic childhood summer at a house in New Hampshire with his large and eerie family. None of the present characters had the emotional pull for me that young Drew (Win's past alter ego) or Keith, Drew's tragic elder brother (who I loved so much that I actually feel like crying when I think a bit about what a book from his perspective would have looked like, I mean, god damn). Because of the tragedy of the "antimatter" sections, the "matter" sections felt like a nowhere near as interesting counterpoint to me.
Yet, reading Charm & Strange was a little like having a hole burned in my heart. I wanted to save Drew, and Keith, and Win (Win and Drew are different people - kind of) and I just felt so sad for everybody. The sense of sadness, guilt and intensity that Kuehn projects throughout the novel is unforgettable and incredibly painful. No, it's not without its flaws (to me), but there's no denying that this one promising debut.(less)
A great story, but I'll never recommend it to anyone.
This is an incredibly effective piece of psychological horror, with a deceptively simple premise...moreA great story, but I'll never recommend it to anyone.
This is an incredibly effective piece of psychological horror, with a deceptively simple premise that Hill and King exploit to the max. It's also so grotesque that I shudder just thinking about it, and it's essentially a hopeless story about two very likeable characters trapped in a hell they cannot escape. I felt gross and a little different after I read it - it's a very bleak and nasty story. Yes, it's horror, but it really is nearly unpalatable. I'll explain exactly how in the spoiler section at the bottom because I'm not sure I'd want anybody to inflict this on themselves.
It's very well-written, though, hence the 4 stars -- I haven't really taken off any stars for the gross factor although I think something more understated might've ultimately been more lastingly frightening. As it was, Tall Grass scared me when I was reading it, and grossed me out so much that I couldn't eat properly for a good few days (and I was on vacation! thanks, guys), but didn't give me nightmares or even a few edgy nights. I will, however, never step into tall grass ever again. Ever again. I am never doing a maze, or going that far out into the country. I'm sticking to the road. Thank God England's countryside is relatively flat and low. So it both did and didn't pack the punch I wanted.
I also wanted more, and I can never figure out if that's good or bad from a short story. I loved all the creepy little hints of the church in the tall grass, with its beautiful steeple, and the cars abandoned in the car park, and whatever it was that Cal saw in the car, how that worked, why exactly the tall grass worked the way it did, why it called the people it did, whether it sent you mad or...whatever had happened to Cal and Tobin at the end (was Ross always kind of psychotic, was it the rock that made him that way, or the grass?) how the people on the other side of the road felt about it all - but we got nothing. I understand that most horror works best off the fear of the unknown, but I think just a little bit more development of these points could have left more lingering creepiness.
As it stands, it's kind of a story of two halves - an incredibly creepy and atmospheric opening sequence, where Cal and Becky, brother and sister driving through Kansas due to Becky's pregnancy, hear somebody shouting from the tall grass and go in to look. They become thirstier and more disorientated and unnerved, then there's somebody else in there - the family who got trapped before them. It then devolves into all kinds of nastiness, including a physical confrontation, murder and a rape threat (and they really spoil my enjoyment of horror). The second half is kind of scary in a blunt-force trauma kind of way, but it loses a lot of atmosphere and tension. I know Hill and King admitted operating on a "gross is good!" attitude - and, yeah, some gross is good, but this was just too over the top and nasty for my tastes. Not in the sense that I was offended or disgusted (well, I was a little disgusted) - it actually didn't surprise me that much, and felt like the least subtle and interesting way out of this particular plot corner.
I also thought the limerick thing was just silly.
Spoiler area. I'm going to go through exactly what happens, because I understand with all this talk, the compulsion to KNOW is pretty damn strong. So: (view spoiler)[Becky is six months pregnant. She and Irish twin brother, Cal, are driving through Kansas en route to their aunt and uncle's in San Diego to figure out what Becky wants to do about the pregnancy. They're driving past a church when they hear a boy yelling for help from the tall grass. They get out to help, hesitating because the boy's mother is worried that 'somebody' will hear them and yells at them to go back to the road. They don't listen and step into the tall grass, where they promptly lose mobile phone signal and each other. (hide spoiler)]
Moving into the non-blurb spoilers: (view spoiler)[In a long section, Cal and Becky slowly figure out that they're trapped and the tall grass is moving them around so they can't reach each other. They become more and more panicked, and then Becky runs into a man, who is obviously crazed and has just brutally killed (and apparently tried to eat) his wife. He threatens to rape Becky and brutally attacks her, kicking her repeatedly in the stomach. Presumably through some magical device she can't really fight back, but she's holding a pair of scissors and manages to jam them into him and kill him. Meanwhile, Cal runs into the man's son, Tobin, who's eating crows because of his own hunger. He explains to Cal that he knows everything because the tall grass does, and Becky is miscarrying, maybe dying. Cal reluctantly goes to the rock and touches it because it has its own magnetic force...or something. We switch back to Becky, who is miscarrying, and holds her dead baby when Cal and Tobin come through the grass looking for her. They 'save' her and then the story becomes very disjointed, but Cal feeds Becky something which tastes "like sardines" but is, in fact (you guessed it), Becky's dead baby. She wakes up and freaks out that she cannibalised her own child, but Cal and Tobin persuade her to touch the rock and she does. A new group of hippies turn up in the car park, hear yelling and walk into the tall grass. FINIS. (hide spoiler)]
Read at your own risk.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)