Rooms by Lauren Oliver is a beautiful, and beautifully-told, story about a house and the generations of people who have inhabited it. As the story opens, the Walker family converges upon the house after the death of Richard Walker, ex-husband to Caroline and father to Minna and Trenton. What the living do not realize — at least at first — is that the house also harbors ghosts: Sandra and Alice, two women who lived in the house at different times in the past.
I was nervous to read this book because I do not like being scared, and I especially do not like ghost stories. But the evocative cover — a red expanse with black tree branches reaching in from all sides — piqued my interest. And Lev Grossman blurbed it, so I felt like I had to give it a shot.
Rooms alternates chapters between the different character viewpoints. The tragic but seemingly unrelated pasts of Sandra and Alice unfold at the same time as the ongoing mystery of Richard Walker’s life and death. Was he a good or a bad father? Why did he end life alone, in a house full of objects? And who is Adrienne Cadou, the woman to whom he left money in his will? Family secrets, some long dead and buried, spill out as mysteries are solved. Halfway through the novel, a missing teenage girl enters the plot, complicating thing even further. And Sandra and Alice still have roles to play in the lives of the living Walkers.
The viewpoints of the ghosts were the most interesting to me. Oliver’s metaphysics of the afterlife is fascinating; Sandra and Alice are both embodied and disembodied. They do not exist as human-shaped spirits, invisible or softly glowing or oozing slime. They do not have eyes or ears or appetites; they do not dream. But they can see and feel. As Alice puts it:
"Dying is a matter of being reborn. In the beginning there was darkness and confusion. We learned gropingly. We felt our way into this new body, the way that infants do… Now everything is perfectly clear. We do more than see. We detect the smallest vibrations, miniscule shifts in the currents, minor disturbances, molecules shifting."The ghosts are presences in the house that see and hear everything without volition: the perfect third-person omniscient narrators, who can tell us that, simultaneously, Caroline is drunk, Minna is weeping, and Trenton is masturbating, each in different rooms. Yet, despite being disembodied, Sandra and Alice are confined to the house and feel its walls and surfaces the way we feel our own skin:
"We hover in the light coming through the windows, with the dust; we spin, dizzy in the silence. We slide across empty dining room chairs, skate across the well-polished table, rub ourselves against the oriental carpets, curl up in the impressions of old footprints."At the same time as being one with the house, Sandra and Alice have a unique knowledge of each other. They can sense each other’s presence right down to their moods. But the intimate knowledge, the near one-ness achieved by post-life, does not mean that they always get along. Some of Rooms funniest and most poignant moments are when the ghosts comment on each other. Sandra describes Alice as having no sense of humor, saying “I can feel her, wound up tight, like a soda about to explode, like clenched butt cheeks.”
I ended up liking this book a lot and, other than one frightening ghost moment, not scared by it at all. Like the Walkers, Sandra and Alice are just people longing for release from their sins and regrets. The end of Rooms provides every character with a moment of self-knowledge and compassion before granting reprieve for some of its more tortured souls.
I originally reviewed this book for FantasyLiterature.com, where I gave it 4 stars.