Little late to the party, but I finally got around to reading Emma Donoghue’s Room. Nominated for the Booker, super hyped in Chapters and the media, Room is a novel I approached with caution, afraid all the hype was due to Harper Collins’ incredible marketing and that the book would disappoint me. Long story short, I love the book.
Room tells the story of Jack, a five year old boy who’s grown up his entire life in a small room with his mother, a 27 year old woman abducted by a man Jack calls Old Nick seven years ago. It’s a plot straight from the headlines, and the book could so easily have devolved into a tabloid article or a melodramatic soap opera. What makes Room work is Donoghue’s choice of using a five year old’s perspective. Jack’s lack of understanding about his and his mother’s situation gives us an incredibly restrained narration of highly charged events, and this restraint ultimately heightens our emotional reaction to the story.
We begin with Jack’s account of his fifth birthday, celebrated with candies instead of candles and with his mother’s sketch of him as a gift. We remain entirely within Jack’s point of view, such that, for example, we never find out Ma’s or Old Nick’s real names. However, as adults, we necessarily understand more than Jack does, which then creates an interesting effect in that we get to empathize fully with both Jack and his mother. We can feel Jack’s longing, for example, to have Old Nick acknowledge his presence, while at the same time also understanding why Ma insists that Jack stay hidden in a closet, and therefore separated from Old Nick, whenever Old Nick comes to visit at night. We sympathize with Jack’s anger at not being allowed to eat the lollipop Old Nick brought for him even while we understand Ma’s frustration at Jack’s apparent desire to form a connection, no matter how tenuous, with her captor.
A major turning point in the novel comes when Ma decides to tell Jack about the outside world. Having taught Jack all his life that only things in the Room are real, and everything on TV is make-believe, Ma has difficulty convincing him that things on TV are based on reality outside the Room. Jack goes from asking if all the things Ma describes (stores, trees, hammocks) are floating around in outer space to asking if even Dora, his favourite TV character, is real. In a strange way, these chapters seem almost quotidian. Even in the so-called real, outside world, don’t parents also deal with having to define reality to their children?
Halfway through the novel, Ma decides to attempt an escape. Whether or not they eventually succeed, Ma’s decision to leave Room after having spent the past five years building a daily routine within Room and essentially presenting Room to her son as the entire world strikes Jack as completely inexplicable. As Ma later realizes, while she’s had seven years to think about escaping, Jack has had to completely overturn his mindset in only a few days.
Ultimately, Room is a novel about the intensity of a child’s love for his mother, and about the extent to which a mother would go to protect her child, not just physically, but also to protect him from uncomfortable truths. Through Jack’s eyes, even the most mundane activities can become exciting games, and even the things we most take for granted, like trees and sunlight, can become unfamiliar. Highly recommended.