Room, by Emma Donoghue

>> Thursday, April 07, 2011

AUTHOR: Emma Donoghue

PAGES: 336

SETTING: Contemporary (I think US, but it's a bit vague)
TYPE: Fiction

WARNING: Spoilers ahead! I tried to write my review without revealing much, but it would have sounded too cryptic and there are some things I definitely wanted to say that would require some spoilers. So read at your own risk. Then again, I'm not going to reveal anything I didn't know when I started it. I got some spoilers from discussions in the literary podcasts I listen to, not to mention the back cover blurb (which I quote below). I don't think those spoilers diminished my enjoyment at all...

To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he was born and grew up; it's where he lives with his Ma as they learn and read and eat and sleep and play. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits.

Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it is the prison where Old Nick has held her captive for seven years. Through determination, ingenuity, and fierce motherly love, Ma has created a life for Jack. But she knows it's not enough...not for her or for him. She devises a bold escape plan, one that relies on her young son's bravery and a lot of luck. What she does not realize is just how unprepared she is for the plan to actually work.
My first thought when I heard about this book was what I guess most people must have thought. A book inspired on the Joseph Fritzl case, about a woman who is kidnapped and stuck in a room for years, used as a sex slave by her captor and who bears a child inside that room? It sounded like a pretty exploitative, trashy idea. However, as I mention above, I listen to quite a few literary podcasts, and when the book was first long-listed and then subsequently short-listed for the Man Booker prize, there was much talk about it. By the time I came to read it, therefore, I'd heard enough reviews to know that the execution was anything but exploitative.

What I didn't know was whether I'd enjoy it, as I've had mixed luck with last year's Booker nominees that I've read. I loved Christos Tsiolkas' The Slap, but was very disappointed by the winner, The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson. I needn't have worried: Room was just as good as The Slap, probably even better.

It is narrated by 5-year-old Jack, who was born in Room and has never been out. He lives there with his beloved Ma and they do all sorts of fun activities together that fill out their day, from playing parrot, repeating and learning the words said on their TV to setting up an obstacle course in the room and running around it. The only boring and not-so-nice bit is when Old Nick comes visit, because Jack has to go sleep in the wardrobe while Old Nick makes the bed creak. It's a good life, but clearly Ma doesn't think so, because she has a plan to change everything.

This is a book that very much hinges on the narrator. The reason it works so well is because Jack's voice is unique, heartbreaking and perfectly believable. Donoghue manages to show us the horror of the situation and what is really going on, all through the perception of someone who doesn't find those things at all horrible and doesn't understand that others would and do. This makes it all even more chilling and sinister. And the narration makes the scene where Jack executes Ma's plan one of the most nail-biting things I've ever read. It's difficult to read, because when Jack is scared to death, as he is then, his thoughts become more than a little disjointed, but very, very effective.

Jack's is also a very consistent voice. His life changes massively during the book, but he is still always very much Jack. Strangely, the proof of the perfect construction of the narration is in the one instance Donaghue fails at it. There were 2 paragraphs where I went "This is not Jack", where the author gives in to the temptation of philosophising about the world herself, about how people don't have time to enjoy their life, and blah, blah, blah. They were 2 pretty crappy paragraphs, but they were only 2 paragraphs. It's a measure of how brilliant the rest of the book was that I was so immersed in Jack's world that I was jolted out of the story by them.

Room is very much Jack's world, but I didn't find it to be a claustrophobic novel, possibly because it was populated by really outstanding characters. Ma, even only seen through the eyes of a 5 year old, is fully developed, and a truly amazing woman, as well. I'm not the natural audience for stories of fantastic motherhood, but Ma moved me. Her efforts to make sure Jack develops normally even though he's stuck in a tiny room were truly heroic and I found her situation almost unbearable to read.

And now come the real spoilers!!

I really liked that Donoghue trusted that the very simple thing of Jack and Ma adapting to a new world would be enough to provide all the tension in the second half of the novel. I kept fearing she would introduce a villain out of some misguided idea that there needed to be more conflict -I don't know, maybe a social worker who'd try to take Jack away from Ma, or that Old Nick would escape and try to get back at Ma. She didn't, though. It wasn't needed, and this was a much better book because of it.



Tara Marie,  7 April 2011 at 11:28  

This sounds incredible, but at the same time I'm not sure I would read it--very emotional.

rosario001,  9 April 2011 at 09:02  

You know, you wouldn't expect it, but it was quite an easy read. I was sure it would be harrowing and difficult, but it wasn't at all!

FiaQ,  9 April 2011 at 15:09  

I assumed it took place in England because it references the Natural History Museum in London. While it's obvious that Room was inspired by one survivor in the Fitzl case, it has shades of the Fred West case as well because of the similaries between Old Nick and Fred (van, looks and so on) as well as their houses (West's house: 25 Cromwell Street in Glouchester). The difference between them is that Old Nick isn't, thankfully, a murderer. This is a speculation, of course. 

I agree with your review 100%, by the way! 

rosario001,  10 April 2011 at 09:55  

FiaQ: You may well be right, but I think there were a couple of other things that made me think US, or at least North America (I think the author lives in Canada?). Like, IIRC, references to Jack's grandma needing a new Social Security card, and some of the stuff that they see on TV (I think there was something about health-care reform). 

Interesting what you say about the Fred West case. I didn't know enough about it to make the connection, but I do now (after a quick google, and eeek, that's an awful one) I see what you mean. Definitely shades of that here.

Ceska 19 April 2012 at 05:04  

This novel encapsulates that fine line of tragedy and endearment. I wasn't too excited when I first bought the book. I read the description on amazon, and reading a story about an imprisoned girl seemed disturbing and horrifying. The only reason I bought it was the fact that it was written in a child's voice and thought it would be interesting. Let me tell you...Boy, did I get the surprise of a literary lifetime! I haven't read such a moving story in a long time, and it is not simply a story about survival, but about relationships, the world, the meaning of childhood, and life in general. It made me laugh and it made me cry. The characters stay within me as a good novel should. I think about Jack while doing everyday things, and his thoughts stay in mine.

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