Room by Emma Donoghue. HarperCollins 2010.
Room, by Irish-Canadian Emma Donoghue, was longlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for the 2010 Governor General Literary Awards. I felt some trepidation about reading this novel as the story revolves around the abduction, confinement and sexual abuse of a 19-year-old girl. At the outset of the story, the young woman has been captive for 7 years and is now 26 years old. However, Room is not the young woman’s story. Rather, the narrator is Jack, her just-turned 5-year-old son, who was born into captivity.
Room is the only home that Jack has ever known. His Ma has protected him from exposure to their jailer by shutting him into a wardrobe bed at night. His only human contact has been with his mom and an 11 square foot room has comprised his entire world. Jack is a bit confused about what is real and what is made up. He sees images of the outside world on the fuzzy screen of their television set and loves Dora the Explorer, but does that world really exist? When Jack turns five, his mother decided the time has come for them to attempt an escape. Their cell is secure and sound proof, and the door has a numbered keypad lock. But Ma has a plan, and it requires great bravery from her young son.
The first section of the book relates Jack’s days inside the cell: games that Ma plays with him, what he sees on TV, what he eats, his desire for a pet, even a spider. His world changes dramatically when he and Ma escape and begin their transition to life Outside. Every experience is new, and Jack meets his extended family, his grandmother, uncle, cousin. As the world opens up before him, he takes his first tentative steps into a new life. Because the story is told from the point of view of young Jack, it isn’t the grim, dark tale that his Ma would tell. Jack’s innocent voice has a quiet appeal and the story moves along quickly.
Room is built on an interesting and imaginative premise. The book is very readable but in the end, I didn’t find Jack’s voice fully convincing and his narrative feels a little flat. Other characters in the book, Ma, Jack’s grandmother, his uncle, aren’t well-developed and I found them hard to sympathize with, in spite of the circumstances.
On the one hand, Jack comes across as quite advanced for his age. He has, after all, had the full attention of an adult for 5 solid years. He has an excellent vocabulary. For instance, he refers to the training wheels on his new bike as stabilizers. Stabilizers? Does any kid say that? Therefore, I found it very jarring and weird that instead of referring to people as men and women, Jack says Hes and Shes.
It also bothered me that Jack refers to his continued breast-feeding as “having some”. I would have expected him to have some pet name for this important comfort habit, or at the very least to have given nursing its proper term (he refers to his penis as such). Because he does not, it felt to me as if he had some inkling that this was an inappropriate behaviour even as his mother rushes to defend it. Perhaps this springs from the author’s own ambivalence.
Although Jack would like to watch more TV, Ma is scrupulous in limiting Jack’s viewing to an hour or so a day. Really? Really? Locked up with a 2, 3, 4-year-old, all day every day, with very limited play resources and space, it would take Supermom not to make more use of the television for entertainment, not to mention adult company for herself.
It also seemed odd that this story by an Irish writer living in Canada is set in the United States. I couldn’t help wondering if this location was chosen for commercial reasons.
There are no acknowledgements of input from psychiatrists or medical personnel listed and no mention of research material. I wondered what research Donoghue might have done in preparing to write Room. By the end of the book, Jack and his mother are well on the road to happily ever after. Oh sure, Ma struggles with depression, Jack has trouble walking down stairs, etc, but in the end, it all seems just a little too pat. Still, I have to give Room full marks for this attempt to see dark events from the viewpoint of a youngster caught in the middle.