THE EMPTY ROOM has been named as one of the National Post’s “Favourite Books of 2013”, the Winnipeg Free Press, Amazon’s “Best Books of 2013: Top Editors’ Picks” (#22) AND “Best of 2013: Canadian Fiction and Literature” (#12) as well as one of the “Critics Picks” from Halifax’s THE COAST.
The Empty Room is an entirely accurate portrait of alcoholism… real… believable. Davis is without a doubt an exceptionally talented writer.
Globe & Mail
Davis’ novel is raw and disturbing, yet we keep reading, spurred by the clarity of the writing and intensity of the description. Davis offers a completely believable picture of one woman’s decline and helplessness. She makes us feel we are inside Colleen’s skin, guaranteeing our empathy. As a writer, Davis has the rare ability to mine her own experience and create fiction from what she palpably understands. It is an enviable talent and her novel allows those of us who have never been there to grasp the hell of being an addict, of how sorry things can get when we waste our lives. The Empty Roomis scary in places, touching, and often sad. It is a great psychological portrait of a woman under the influence.
The Toronto Star
Davis heartbreakingly renders the disturbed thought process of someone trapped in addiction.
The Quill & Quire
Truly this is a novel of the absolute highest literary quality. Davis has been long-listed for The Giller Prize before. If The Empty Room does not make it at least that far, I will eat my pen.
Hubert O’Hearn, By the Book Reviews
In The Empty Room, Davis portrays the frustrating doggedness of an alcoholic unable to recognize her problem with such insight … Her alcoholism has a narrative; it explains why she’s become the woman she’s become. Davis skillfully juggles Colleen’s past and present…. vivid … heart-wrenching scenes of tenderness.
Davis brilliantly tackles alcoholism. . . A serious, sorrowful book, The Empty Room, is a masterful portrayal of an addiction
Telegraph Journal “Here Magazine”
Page-turner captures horrors of alcoholism. The Empty Room, excellent itself, joins an impressive list of literary novels devoted to the evils of booze. She captures all the mannerisms, rationalizations and coverups of the classic alcoholic in a remarkable novel that proves to be a real page-turner. Davis moves seamlessly in and out of Colleen’s mind as she convinces herself she either needs the next drink or must prepare for when she needs one later. Davis shows her mastery of dialogue and also her versatility. Davis succeeds in giving us a character we continue to hope for even as Colleen’s situation grows more and more grim; and she skilfully shows the funny side of horrific and degrading scenes while never causing us to laugh at her protagonist, always retaining our sympathy.
Winnipeg Free Press
The Empty Room is an unflinching depiction of a woman’s descent into alcoholism … tells the truth about the lives of everyday folk.
Davis puts readers deep into Colleen’s mind so they can see her fight the bottle to get her life back.
Halifax Chronicle Herald
“A rare act of courage…. A brilliant, defiant examination of desire, loss, sorrow, triumph and grace.”
—Ami McKay, author of The Birth House and The Virgin Cure
“Soaked in alcoholism and addiction, this story plumbs the bottomless human genius for self-deception and our singular talent for wandering into hellholes of our own design. Lauren B. Davis writes deftly, never averting her gaze—and never letting go of the fact that threads of grace lie always within our grasp.”
—Alan Cumyn, author of The Famished Lover and The Sojourn
“Unflinching and unsentimental, The Empty Room charts a day from hell in the life of Colleen Kerrigan, alone, nearly 50, and spiralling into yet another alcoholic binge. It is a credit to the brilliance and humanity of novelist Lauren B. Davis that, even in this nightmare, we find utter truth, wicked humour and just enough hope to keep on reading.”
– Lawrence Hill, author of The Book of Negroes
“This is a raw, exciting book—alcoholism from deep inside the jaws of death and denial. To call it ‘honest’ is a disservice: it is scalding.”
—Bharati Mukherjee, author of Desirable Daughters and Miss New India
“In The Empty Room, Lauren B. Davis has given us an honest, brave account of self-destruction, one that harrowingly reminds us that recovery from the abyss of alcoholism is never easy, but eloquently hints at what is possible when the self-deception and denial end.”
—Linden McIntyre, author of The Bishop’s Man and Why Men Lie
Posted on Jun 6, 2014
THE WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
May 25, 2013
The Empty Room, excellent itself, joins an impressive list of literary novels devoted to the evils of booze. Some of the best-known are: The Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson (which became the famous Ray Milland movie); The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene; Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry; A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley (who insisted it be classified as a fictional memoir); Disturbing the Peace by Richard Yates; and The Woman Who Walked into Doors by Roddy Doyle. The latter is the only one of these to feature a female protagonist.
Davis, who was born in Montreal but lives in Princeton, N.J., can hold her own in such company. She captures all the mannerisms, rationalizations and coverups of the classic alcoholic in a remarkable novel that proves to be a real page-turner.
The Empty Room presents one dramatic Monday in the life of 49-year-old Torontonian Colleen Kerrigan who, when we meet her, is working as an administrative assistant in the local university’s geography department.
After a drunken night she can barely recall, she arrives late for work and is called into her boss’s office. She expects the worst when a human resources person joins the meeting.
That is just the first in a series of drastic events that will challenge her both mentally and physically.
In alternating chapters, Davis flashes back to key incidents in Colleen’s past: her witnessing — at age nine — a fight between her drunken parents; the first time she got drunk, at age 14; her on-again, off-again relationship with her lover Jake; going to an AA meeting with her “garbage-head” cousin Liam, who later committed suicide; throwing up in the men’s room of a local nightclub.
In what writers call “free indirect style,” Davis moves seamlessly in and out of Colleen’s mind as she convinces herself she either needs the next drink or must prepare for when she needs one later. Here’s a sample passage in which she’s about to leave for a job interview at a temp agency:
“She was already in her coat and just about out the door when she thought she might like a little nip to keep warm on the walk to Eglinton. … Perhaps she’d take something with her, just in case she got nervous. That seemed prudent. What to take it in? A salad dressing bottle would do nicely. Just the right size. She dumped the contents (past their sell-by date anyway) into the sink and with a fine, almost surgical steadiness she poured vodka into the bottle. Not all the way — she would leave room for something else, something that looked dressing-y.”
Colleen is a would-be writer and an avid reader whose library includes many self-help books on alcoholism; she’s read them all, including the Caroline Knapp memoir Drinking: A Love Story.
Davis shows her mastery of dialogue and also her versatility; where The Empty Room concentrates on a single character in Toronto, her powerful previous novel, Our Daily Bread, followed a large cast in a fictional American town.
Davis succeeds in giving us a character we continue to hope for even as Colleen’s situation grows more and more grim; and she skilfully shows the funny side of horrific and degrading scenes while never causing us to laugh at her protagonist, always retaining our sympathy.
Dave Williamson is a Winnipeg writer whose latest book is Dating: A Novel.
BY THE BOOK REVIEWS
June 29, 2013
Oh how we celebrate alcohol and the serious drinker in our culture. Bogart, Gable, Spencer Tracy, ‘It’s post time’, ‘One for the road’, ‘Here’s mud in your eye.’ Keith Richards, Keith Moon, Janis Joplin; one lived to tell the story. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway. What delightful stories there are about limousines being driven into swimming pools, smashed up hotel rooms and sarcastic insults fired out from well-moistened lips. And then what about your Dad!
TELEGRAPH JOURNAL, “HERE MAGAZINE”
A Gut Wrenching Look at Alcoholism
The Empty Room offers masterful portrayal of addiction
May 30 – June 5, 2013
Colleen Kerrigan wakes up with a wicked hangover, the kind that leaves you with no memory of what went on the night before and that is as incapacitating as any illness.
So begins Lauren B. Davis’s fourth novel, The Empty Room, a gut-wrenching look at alcoholism.
Kerrigan has a serious drinking problem. She is unable to get through the day without a drink. She doesn’t just drink in the evening, but at the first sign of any stress Kerrigan hauls out a bottle.
In The Empty Room, she’s about to experience a very bad day, and so the reader meets Kerrigan at her worst. As the book opens, Kerrigan is late for work and in a scene so bilious it verges on comical, we follow Kerrigan as she takes the subway ride from hell.
“A train pulled in and people exiting the car swam in two directions like salmon swirling in a spawning pool, some trying to get up the stairs, Colleen and others trying to get down…the sound of the approaching train deafened her. She felt as though it might jump the track, mangle all of them on the platform. She must get out of here.”
So it goes: Kerrigan’s life is a sodden, constricted mess. She loses her job as an administrative assistant because of her drinking, is unable to make it through an interview as a job temp without sneaking a snort from a bottle and is an over-emotional, unstable walking disaster to her friends.
Kerrigan is the product of abusive parents, who also drank to excess. Scenes filling in the backstory are heartbreaking and realistic. Her mother, a stroke victim, is routinely cruel to Kerrigan, who assuages every hurt with a bottle.
In The Empty Room, Davis brilliantly tackles alcoholism, capturing not only the genetic predispositions that might lead an individual to drink, but also the day-to-day frustrations that lead to a reliance on the bottle. A serious, sorrowful book, The Empty Room, is a masterful portrayal of an addiction and illness and its ugly, untidy end.
THE TORONTO STAR
Alcoholism and a woman’s descent into emotional hell
The Empty Room, HarperCollins , 314 pages, $24.99,
By: Jennifer Hunter, Published on Fri May 31 2013
From the moment we meet Colleen Kerrigan it’s apparent she is sinking into a vortex of self-destruction.
Lauren B. Davis opens her new novel The Empty Room with a discomfiting vision of Colleen’s efforts to get ready for work.
On a Monday morning Colleen wakes up, “wondering why she was chewing on a dirty old sock. She tried to pull her tongue from the roof of her mouth; it peeled away, dry and swollen. Her fingers told her she didn’t actually have a sock in there…
“In fact, she didn’t exactly remember going to bed. She hadn’t even bothered to take off her bra and the wire must have dug into her left breast as she slept. It hurt. Or maybe it was cancer.”
Colleen is almost 50. She lives by herself, has never married, has few friends, and has shuffled from job to job. The source of her difficulties is her reliance on what she calls the French fairy and the Russian fairy — wine or vodka — to push her through the day.
From chapter to chapter of The Empty Room we shadow Colleen’s descent into alcoholism. It’s a bit like accompanying Dante into the Inferno, an interminable dive into the fog of darkness.
“She stood up, a bit too quickly, and yelped when she cracked her shin against the coffee table. She grabbed her leg, lost her balance and ended up on the carpet with vodka spilled down her chest. For a moment she simply sat there, shocked by the fall. For the second time that day she was covered in spilled booze.”
The empty room, in need of a cleaning and denuded of furniture, serves as a metaphor for Colleen’s life. She ends up being unemployed and alienating the rest of her old friends because of alcohol abuse. She is emotionally vacant, incapable of any type of self-reflection.
Davis’ novel is raw and disturbing, yet we keep reading, spurred by the clarity of the writing and intensity of the description.
Davis offers a completely believable picture of one woman’s decline and helplessness. She makes us feel we are inside Colleen’s skin, guaranteeing our empathy.
In her brief moments of sobriety, Colleen’s intelligence and interest in writing and literature speak of her real interests. She could shine if she was only able to pull herself together.
In the Acknowledgements at the close of The Empty Room, there is a possible suggestion of how Davis was able to create such a vivid portrait of a woman sinking further into alcoholism.
Davis appears to appreciate what Colleen is going through because she may have been there herself. Her thanks go out to the “people who walk the sober road with me. One day at a time.”
As a writer, Davis has the rare ability to mine her own experience and create fiction from what she palpably understands.
It is an enviable talent and her novel allows those of us who have never been there to grasp the hell of being an addict, of how sorry things can get when we waste our lives.
The Empty Room is scary in places, touching, and often sad. It is a great psychological portrait of a woman under the influence.
June 2013 issue
Lauren B. Davis’s fourth novel tells the story of Colleen Kerrigan, a relatively unremarkable middle-aged secretary who is single and childless. Colleen is also a full-blown alcoholic.
The novel takes place over a single day. As the story begins, Colleen is fired from her job, her bosses having reached the breaking point over her inability to perform at work. Flashbacks trace Colleen’s downward trajectory, beginning in childhood with an alcoholic father and (untreated) bipolar mother. Other family members have also suffered from addiction. However, The Empty Room hypothesizes that addiction is not simply the result of genetics. Circumstances and choices play an equal part in the disease’s
Colleen’s former boyfriend, Jake, is another drug she can’t quit. Like alcohol, he is both salve and wound, a cruel man whose presence is a reminder of better days. Jake’s ability to overcome a cocaine addiction, achieve professional success, and start a family with a much younger woman makes Colleen feel invisible and useless in a society that still values youth and beauty in women above all else.
Davis heartbreakingly renders the disturbed thought process of someone trapped in addiction. Colleen suffers magical thinking, paranoia, hypochondria, and depression. Her alcoholism isolates her from other people until the only friend she can call in a crisis is the caustic and agoraphobic Helen, a woman trapped by her own dysfunction.
The Empty Room sometimes reads like a tension-filled episode of Intervention told from the addict’s perspective. The reader is not sure, until the final pages, whether Colleen will choose life or death, but it’s certain she cannot continue along the same path. The book’s momentum comes from the realization that, should she choose to harness it, Colleen has the power to end the cycle of addiction that has plagued her family for generations.
Reviewed by Heather Cromarty
THE HALIFAX CHRONICLE HERALD
May 25, 2013
Author hopes story of addiction will reach those who need it most
“The process for this book was very different from anything I’ve written prior to this, short stories excepted,” said the one-time Nova Scotia resident who now lives in New Jersey.
“The novels have been thick with research and this really was not. This was a question of getting it down on paper and finding a form, finding a structure, finding the framework for it and then getting it out.”
That means it took much less time than usual — about five months — to finish the first draft of The Empty Room.
Davis shows 24 hours of Colleen Kerrigan’s struggle with alcohol. Through alternating chapters of the present day and flashbacks, Davis shows Colleen’s emergence one morning from a drunken stupor and her daylong battle with herself and booze as she tries to decide whether she needs help.
She argues with herself about the need to do something, despite run-ins at work and with friends, and the growing mountain of evidence that she has a problem.
Davis says some parts of The Empty Room — primarily the younger years — are a bit autobiographical.
“What I was thinking when I was writing it was, what might have happened to me if I hadn’t stopped drinking 18 years ago?” said Davis, 57. “I was trying to imagine what a day would look like if I had kept on drinking. And I’ll tell you, nothing will fill you with more gratitude than spending months pondering that question.”
Davis has lost friends and family to alcoholism and said she wanted to write The Empty Room in part to help people who know someone battling the disease to understand what goes through the mind of an alcoholic.
“For me and a lot of the people I’ve known, one of the overriding characteristics is this hole in the centre of our being,” she said. “Some people call it the God-shaped hole, but it’s just this horrible centre of nothingness. The loneliness is crippling, and your sense of isolation is horrific. No matter what your life looks like from the outside, that always seems to be the same.”
It certainly is for Colleen, who recognizes in the book’s 24 hours that she doesn’t have many people to turn to, and even her last resorts for companionship have been pushed away by her drinking. Davis puts readers deep into Colleen’s mind so they can see her fight the bottle to get her life back. She lets down one of her last friends in the friend’s own hour of need, and tells off an ex-boyfriend in what she thinks is a wonderfully written email but is in fact a rambling missive.
But the tipping point comes when she finds an object in her bedroom and has no idea how it got there.
Davis said that while Colleen is a mess, “I kind of like her. I think she’s kind of funny.”
She said someone wrote her after reading the book and told her they laughed at parts.
“I said, ‘Thank God,’ because I was afraid that it’s a serious subject and some people would think if they laughed they were reading it wrong. If you laugh a little bit, you’re reading it right.”
But she hopes, ultimately, to get through to readers.
“What I hope people will identify with is the emotional state, not the details of the day,” she said. “And if someone is reading this who doesn’t know someone who’s an alcoholic … or doesn’t really feel they understand it, hopefully this will give them some view of what’s going on in the alcoholic mind. It’s not what you’d think it is from the outside.
“Beyond that, I hope it’s the story of a woman who interests people and keeps them intrigued for a few hours.”
Ian Fairclough — staff writer for the Halifax Chronicle Herald.