Book Review: Room by Emma Donoghue

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Until he turns five, Jack lives in Room with Ma. When God’s yellow face looks in through Skylight, he counts one hundred cereal and eats it with Meltedy Spoon. Then he plays games, sings songs, and watches TV, and when God’s yellow face is gone from Skylight, he lies down inside Wardrobe and watches as Ma lets Old Nick through the door that only Old Nick knows how to open. Jack counts the creaks Old Nick makes in Bed before he finally falls asleep.

Then Jack turns five and Ma tells him that it isn’t true that he and she and Old Nick are the only people, and that some of the things he sees on TV are not make-believe, and that what is outside of Room is not Outer Space – it’s the rest of the world. Only, because he was born in Room (right on Rug), he has never had a chance to see it. And because Ma has lived in Room ever since the day Old Nick tricked her and stole her from her life, neither has she seen it herself in seven years. But now, because they can’t live like this forever, it’s time to find a way out of Room, and to a world that has no idea that Room, or Jack, exists.

Room is the story of a little boy’s world expanding, but in ways that bewilder him and shake to the core everything he has ever believed about what the world itself is. Told in Jack’s voice, Irish-Canadian Emma Donoghue’s gripping and deeply stirring novel is on the shortlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize. This is a story not about trauma and damage – Ma’s kidnapping at 19, subsequent rapes, and the consequences of her life in custody are dealt with only through Jack’s eyes. The child himself is both beloved and loving, and spared the knowledge of his unusual situation until such time that he might be able to reconcile it. What gives Room its power is how it disturbs the reader not by evoking shocking details of human life in captivity, but by turning the question more existentially to confinement, reorientation, and the multiplicity of reality.

Literature about children and adolescents with dysfunctional backgrounds is extensive, but Jack is unlike any other such character. Thoroughly endearing and possessed with a beatific disposition, with a gift for imagination and love that is almost heartbreaking in aptitude, he steals the heart and inspires more awe than pity. Ma, we understand as a complex adult – a teenager who found it within herself to nurture this incredible child under astonishing circumstances, but whose life before and after Room contain other facets. But Jack’s life began with Room. His very first encounter with the world Outside is in during their Great Escape, which he manages single-handedly, and which is the beginning of every challenge that comes as he adjusts to a world beyond his very paradigm of comprehension. That Donoghue has found a way to render a child character who is both innocent, who won’t cut his long hair in case he will lose his strength like Samson and thinks Dora the Explorer is his friend, and yet is so intrinsically heroic and inspiring, is a victory.

Room leaves the reader shaken – disgusted by the criminal nature of what was done to Ma and Jack, disturbed by what it might be like to undergo such an experience, uplifted by the wonder and testament that is Jack himself, and overflowing with admiration for Emma Donoghue’s ability to evoke all of the above. This is a fantastic book, recommended without reservation.

An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.

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