A golden cage

One, without knowing anything about it, in which case it will astound the reader with its carefully constructed tale, one that reveals itself layer by delicious layer. The second is to venture in knowing a little about it and even then, the story manages to confound and bowl over the reader. In this novel, the reader certainly does not receive what she expects and that is what makes this unusual book so remarkable.

This is the story of Jack, a five year old boy, and his mother, who are confined in a room, the size of a garden shed. Gradually, through the voice of Jack, it is revealed that they have been incarcerated in this claustrophobic space by a man Jack calls Old Nick, bringing to mind the original Dark Prince.

This man had abducted Jack’s mother, subsequently imprisoning her in this shed, coming in to rape her every night. Jack does not know all this, his mother has taken care to conceal these facts from him — when old Nick comes after nine every night, to “creak Bed”, she insists Jack sleep inside “Wardrobe”— and instead, she has successfully constructed a world within this tiny room that is filled with warmth and goodness and, unexpectedly, humour.

There is a television in the room and when Jack’s mother explains the images they see on it as fake, Jack believes her, having no reason not to. As far as he is concerned, the world is limited to this little room they never leave and the things in it, things he has named and loves passionately — Bed, Wardrobe, Table and Rug, among others.

 It is with immense tenderness that the author fashions this intimate world. The voice used is Jack’s and naturally, the language is childlike and the grammar often not quite right, but it never strikes a false note, something it very easily could have. Instead, the voice is compelling authentic.

When Jack says at breakfast one morning, “I stroke Table’s scratches to make them better” one cannot help being touched. He has this same affection for all the articles in the room; they are all he has ever known ever since he tumbled out of his mother onto Rug and he understands from his mother that this is all he will ever have. But, the deepest love he reserves for his Ma and for her too, he is the only reason she is still alive.

This profoundly intense, infinitely tender relationship forms the heart of the book and, in a way, transcends the situation the mother and son find themselves in. They are like any other mother and son when they bake Jack’s birthday cake together or when they play guessing games with each other. At the same time, there is an intense quality to their love that has been forged out of the circumstance they are in, an intensity that is unexpectedly moving.

At one point, later in the book, when Jack asks if his mother ,who has tried to kill herself, is alive and says, “Because if she’s not, I don’t want to be either”, the full measure of this love can be understood.

After years of this life, comes a point when Jack’s mother is filled with disquiet as Old Nick begins to take an unexpected interest in Jack. This alarms her enough to plan an escape and the story acquires a new urgency as the escape is plotted and executed.

There follows a different kind a story — an account of a discovery of a new world by Jack. He steps into this new world with the wonder of someone who has stepped into “Outer Space” and again, the author does not disappoint as she describes our world in Jack’s inimitable voice.

There is wry humour when Jack learns to dissemble, saying, “When something tastes yucky it’s interesting.”, and he is endearing when in response to his mother telling him about the Beatles’ song, All You Need Is Love, he says, “Don’t persons need food and stuff?”!

Jack and his mother learn to negotiate this new world together; they stumble and fall, picking themselves up again and again. Once more, it is their deep and abiding bond that sustains them through this journey.

This incredible story, that in less skillful hands could have been a grimly bleak one turns out to be a celebration : it is a joyous celebration of the human spirit, of the tremendous resilience and fortitude that a human being can dredge up from deep within and most significantly, it is a celebration of that everlasting love that a mother and child shares. This heart-warming tale will surely endure for a long time to come.

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