Advanced reader copy received from the publisher via NetGalley
Release date (UK): 15th January 2015
Read as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge (Task: A book that was originally published in another language)
This was one of the first books I ever requested on NetGalley, and I left it sitting around for almost six months after receiving it. The truth is, I went a little out of my comfort zone with this book, a surreal tale which is difficult to pinpoint to one genre. But once I finally got around to reading it, I got through this short story very quickly.
The Room tells the story of Bjorn, a decidedly odd but ambitious office worker who takes a new job at the mysterious ‘Authority’, with the aim to work his way up to the top of the company as quickly as possible. He’s clearly intelligent, but also completely socially inept and has a severe superiority complex. He is quick to make judgements of his colleagues with crude observations made for the reader’s benefit – “Hannah with the ponytail was one of those women who laugh readily and can talk for hours without a single sensible thing being said”. He also struggles with the usual social interactions which come naturally in an office, attending the Christmas party and commenting “I walked around among people who made various excruciating attempts to engage me in conversation. As you might imagine, it was a pointless task.”
Bjorn adopts a strict regime for his working hours, consisting of 55 minutes solid work followed by intermittent 5 minute breaks, avoiding the usual coffee and socialising at all costs. It is on one of his breaks that he first discovers the Room. A perfectly ordinary little office room, situated between the lift and the toilets on his floor, but to him it offers an oasis of calm within an office environment where he doesn’t belong. Good things happen to him in the room, and he can’t help but keep returning to it.
Bjorn is getting on with his quiet life and enjoying his moments in the room, until his colleagues start to question what it is he is doing between the lift and the toilets. They deny the room’s existence, leaving Bjorn convinced that they are conducting some sort of psychological warfare against him. But who is right? Is the room a figment of an overactive imagination, a result of a mental illness? Or is there something more mysterious going on? And what is the Authority anyway?
The book was a really refreshing and original read. It wasn’t what I expected, but then I don’t think I really knew what to expect. This book was written in Swedish and has a Scandinavian feel to it which adds to the atmosphere. It loses nothing in the translation and works on a lot of levels. It’s a bleakly humorous office satire, with a touch of melancholy, and examines all manner of issues from workplace bullying to mental illness. The protagonist, Bjorn, isn’t exactly likeable – I don’t think I’d enjoy working in an office with him. He is incredibly condescending towards his colleagues, telling them at one point “It’s perfectly natural for more straightforward individuals to feel alarmed by someone of talent”.
But at the same time, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. Bjorn is alone in his life – others around him do not see things the same way as he does, and the presence of the room simply exacerbates this fact. As things at work spiral downhill for him, he muses “I suddenly felt how lonely it is, constantly finding yourself the only person who can see the truth in this gullible world.” The writer does a brilliant job of getting inside the mind of someone who doesn’t fit into society, who truly ‘thinks outside the box’.
This novel was completely different to most things I read, but I enjoyed it and got through it in a day. It’s a short, sharp read which builds layers upon layers and offers an original take on modern office life, and what it means to be different.