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Narratives of captivity

September 29, 2010 |  8:07 am

  Dugard_room

On Monday, Simon & Schuster announced it will publish the memoir of Jaycee Dugard, who was kidnapped at age 11 by Phillip Garrido and held captive by him for 18 years, during which time she had two of his children. Dugard, now 30, is at work on the book, which will span her past from the time of her kidnapping up to the present, a year after being discovered and freed. In a news release, the publisher describes the story as "stark" and "compelling."

"Not only does Jaycee Dugard have a truly important story to tell," said Jonathan Karp, executive vice president and publisher, "but she writes with such honesty and intimacy, that as I read her narrative, I felt like was in the room with her."

That's an interesting choice of words -- "Room" is the title of another book much discussed. Emma Donoghue's novel, which is shortlisted for the Booker Prize, was in part inspired by Dugard's story. In our pages Wednesday, David L. Ulin reviewed "Room."

The more you know about Emma Donoghue's ninth novel, "Room," the harder it is to assess.

That's a tricky issue, since "Room" is one of the hot books of the moment: shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, with coverage everywhere. If you've heard about it, you know the setup: The novel is narrated by a 5-year-old boy named Jack, who was born and has spent his entire life in a room (a fortified garden shed, really) with his mother, imprisoned by the man who kidnapped her seven years before. ...

These are the basics, which we learn in the first 30 or 40 pages of the book. Still, to have even that small bit of information irrevocably alters how we engage with the work.

The conceit of "Room," after all, is to unfold slowly, piece by piece.

There are other recent novels in this vein. Lydia Millet's "My Happy Life" (2002) is told by a woman who is locked in an asylum after years of hardship; the narrator isn't entirely reliable. Chris Abani's "Becoming Abigail," the story of a Nigerian girl's emigration to London only to suffer abuse at the hands of her benefactors, was inspired by a newspaper article. In both cases, establishing a voice that can tell the story of abuse in ways that are both telling and oblique is key.

"'Room' depends entirely on voice to be successful," Ulin writes in his review, "and voice is a fragile thing. Push too far in one direction and it becomes a gimmick, too far in the other and it grows obscure." 

Literary techniques of elision and metaphor, perhaps best-suited for giving shape to stories of almost unfathomable abuse, may not have a place in a victim's memoir. Jaycee Dugard faces a difficult task: telling people what it was like.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: A structure in Philip Garrido's backyard. Credit: Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times

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