Sunday, October 24, 2010

Hugo and Jack, Room and Slap

The Slap introduces us to middle-class suburbanites in Melbourne, Australia, struggling with too little money and too much alcohol. - Brigitte Weeks writing in the Washington Post

Hugo and Jack are two little boys around the age of four when we meet them, in two very different novels. Both novels have almost monosyllabic titles - The Slap and Room. Both boys are still breastfeeding.

But there the similarity ends. I've grouped the two novels together,  because in both cases, though  in "Room" more than "The Slap", the story centers upon a young child. And because both are books I've very recently read. And ... it seems to go on and on ... both novels were long-listed for the 2010 Man Booker.

"The Slap" is set in inner-suburban Melbourne, an area I know well. For the first few chapters the book fascinated me - the central characters could have been people I knew. Note the past tense ... The "slap" refers to an incident that triggers a chain of events - a chain that is the core of the novel's plot.

Hugo, the pivotal child in "The Slap",   is over-indulged by his parents who are a cross-class couple - a type of couple all too familiar in inner-city Melbourne where the novel is set. A middle class Rosie is married to working class verging-on-alcoholic Gary. The couple despises the values that Rosie's middle-class background represents. Rosie and Gary are self-righteous boors.  They spoil, in both senses of the word, their child, Hugo.

Women outside wine bar, inner-city, Melbourne
At the BBQ of his parents friends, Hugo has a tantrum and bullies another child. He "spits the dummy", as we say in OZ. Meaning of course,  he has a hissy fit - "spits his pacifier" -  though somehow this phrase does not have the same imagery as its Australian counterpart. When Hugo kicks the father of one of the other children at the BBQ, the man retaliates by slapping him. The rest of the novel is about Rosie and Gary suing the slapper, and mutual friends taking opposing sides. Sub-plots include affairs, bored housewives, a young man coming to terms with his homosexuality, parental-approved teenage drug taking, and what it's like to be old and Greek in Australia.

And there's sex scenes - too many of them. Obviously written by a man, with a blush of soft-porn.

You're right. I was not impressed by the novel, and am surprised that it was long-listed for the Booker. Still, reading a novel set in my home town, home suburbs was sort of fun.

It is hard not to like a child. Especially a fictional one. But I could not like Hugo, no matter what his mitigating circumstance were.

Jack of "Room" is  likable. Endearing. Intelligent and unspoiled, despite being locked up day and night in a 21 square-foot room. Jack was born in the room and knows no other existence. To him, the small space is the entire world, and he and his mother are its only inhabitants. In an attempt to give her child a normal life, Jack’s mother fills their days with invented games and activities using their limited possessions. At the end of each day, Jack must go to sleep in a wardrobe by 9 pm in order to avoid encountering his mother’s captor (and his father), who drops by most nights to rape his female victim.

It's "Room", not "The Room", as in Jack's room the objects are personal. There's "rug" and "plant". They are like friends to Jack who only has no human contact with anyone apart from his mother.

Jack is adorable. He has a good sense of humour and a naive but logical take on the world. He knows that he was born in the room, when his mother pushed him our of the birth canal. He fell onto "Rug" where there's remains a blood stain. His mother cuts the umbilical cord and Jack says, he was then "free" and "turned into a human".

There's no real explanation as to why his mother continues to breast feed Jack, though it isn't hard for the reader to work out several reasons. There's no proper cooking facilities and the mother and son rely on whatever food their captor brings them, mostly canned.

I recommend "Room". It is one of the best books I've read for some time.

And after reading "The Slap" it was a delight to meet Jack. It was good to get back to normal, as I'm not used to disliking children, even pretend ones.

Stay tuned


Anonymous said...

I haven't read Room but I will now! I live in Melbourne and did read 'The Slap'. I thought it was quite good except for the weird sex scenes.

Ariel said...

Room is one of the best novels I've ever read.

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