Book review: Emma Donoghue’s “Room”

The past week has been a little hectic, which is why the reviews have been few and far between. It doesn’t look like it’s going to let up anytime soon, but I’ll try my best to sneak in a few posts every now and then.

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Because of the nature of my job, most of the books I end up reading come from the young adult shelves of the local bookstores. While I do have books that don’t have teenagers drowning in twu wuv, they are often relegated to the bottom of my reading pile. But every now and then, my job allows for a few “adult” books to zoom up the ranks.

This week, I finished reading Emma Donoghue’s “Room”, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Imagine spending your whole life in an 11 by 11 foot room, with only one human companion to spend it with. The only things you’ve ever known are the cork-lined walls that line your room and the furniture you’ve grown up with. The only friends that you have are the ones that you see on TV.

Imagine having to spend your nights in a wardrobe, because you don’t want to see the man that comes into your room every night. Now imagine being told that there is a bigger world outside, that the whole world is not just your room, and that everything you’ve been taught about the world is a lie.

Now imagine going through all of that as a five-year-old boy.

This is the intriguing and terrifying idea that Emma Donoghue explores in “Room”, the award-winning author’s latest work. “Room” tells the story of Jack, a five-year-old boy who has spent the entirety of his life locked in a room with his mother.

Jack has spent five years inside Room, and it and his Ma are the only world he has ever known. He have his meals on Table, sleeps on Bed, and waits daily for his friends Dora and Spongebob to appear on TV. At night, his mother shuts him in Wardrobe to hide him from Old Nick. These things and his Ma are the only real things in his world, and he is happy with the way things are.

However, his mother is only getting more desperate with each passing day. She has been imprisoned in the room for seven years now, without any contact with the outside world, and she knows that the world she has constructed for Jack will not keep him satisfied for much longer.

When Ma hatches a plan to get them out of Room, Jack has to muster all his courage and prepare to face the world outside, a world that until his fifth birthday, he didn’t even know existed. Will Jack be able to overcome his fears and save himself and his mother? Or will he fail and have to face a future without his beloved Ma?

“Room” comes to local bookshelves with more than a little fanfare. Aside from being part of the shortlist for the 2010 Man Booker Prize, part of The New York Times’ “100 Notable Books of 2010”, and on The New York Times Bestseller List to boot.

It’s easy to see why it is a critical darling. Jack is an inspired creation, whose narrative voice achieves an almost magical amalgam of wonder and terror as he introduces readers to his world and the extraordinary and dangerous situation he is in.

In the first few pages, it’s easy to get caught up in Jack’s enthusiasm as he celebrates his fifth birthday. But as the novel progresses, readers are gradually introduced to the horror of the situation that Jack and his Ma are in. At night, Ma keeps Jack inside a wardrobe to hide him from Old Nick, who comes in every night to rape Ma. Jack passes this time by counting the creaks that the bed makes.

The fact that all of this horror is described in the matter-of-fact tone of a child who has grown up thinking that all of it is normal makes the proceedings doubly chilling. The horror permeates even when Jack makes joyous discoveries, such as when his Ma reveals that the things he sees on TV are actually real and exist outside Room. When Jack and his Ma finally attempt their escape, it is a heart-stopping sequence that will have readers flipping the pages to see what happens and hoping for the best.

But Jack and Ma’s escape from Room is only half of the story that Donoghue wants to tell. The world has moved on without them while they were held captive, and finding themselves thrown into the midst of this brand new world comes with a lot of new challenges.

It is in the outside world that Donoghue raises an interesting question: Would Jack and Ma have been safer inside Room after all? They may have been trapped, but inside Room Jack had the soothing comfort of routine and predictability. Outside, Jack has to get used to the now real concept of other people besides Ma, and has to share her affections with the people that came before him. Inside Room, Old Nick was the only evil Jack had to contend with; outside is fraught with many different dangers to him and Ma.

Donoghue gives no easy answers, and instead chooses to stay true to Jack’s precocious and believable voice. It is because of Jack’s simple, honest, and resilient voice that “Room” bursts out of its box and becomes something infinitely special.

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5 thoughts on “Book review: Emma Donoghue’s “Room””

  1. It was such a horrifying, fascinating read. And the times when Jack relates when Ma is “Gone” is amazing and heartbreaking.

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