Narrator Jack and his mother, who was kidnapped seven years earlier when she was a 19-year-old college student, celebrate his fifth birthday. They live in a tiny, 11-foot-square soundproofed cell in a converted shed in the kidnapper's yard. The sociopath, whom Jack has dubbed Old Nick, visits at night, grudgingly doling out food and supplies. But Ma, as Jack calls her, proves to be resilient and resourceful--and attempts a nail-biting escape.
Jack has just turned five years old. He lives with his mother in Room, a cozy space isolated from Outside. He is happy, as he knows no other life outside of Room. He was born on Rug, reads books and plays with toys that are brought by Old Nick, the only person who visits them. Old Nick comes at night, and Jack must hide in Wardrobe until the man finally leaves his mother in Bed. Jack spends his days playing with Ma, and he loves her deeply, although he is troubled whenever she is Gone, those times where she spends the day in bed.
Jack and Ma escape from Room, and he must adjust to Outside, a place he has only seen on television and heard about from Ma. Doctors poke him, strangers fawn over him and ask him odd questions, and he must adjust to these new strangers that Ma insists are his family. Although everyone insists he will be happier Outside, Jack wants nothing more than to return to Room with Ma.
"Room" is a fascinating look into the life of a young boy as he tries to understand his place in the world, one that is unfamiliar and unsettling. The novel was triggered by the infamous Josef Fritzl case in Austria, in which a man kept his daughter isolated in a basement for 24 years and fathered several children with her before she was eventually rescued. This novel is markedly different from the case, especially in the use of Jack as the narrator throughout the book and the downplaying of the more disturbing aspects of the story. Donoghue does a masterful job in her portrayal of Jack, and his lovable and maddening personality is one that I won't soon forget.
As they are forced to live in this Room as prisoners, Jack's mother is tireless in building a life in Room that entertains, fascinates and educates her son as best she can, while fiercely protecting Jack from the man who has imprisoned them. While Jack doesn't understand yet that they are prisoners, he's a happy child, but his happiness is contrasted with his mother's occasional quietness as she remembers the life she used to have on the Outside.
Mother and son find a way to escape and what follows is an interesting psychological study in how Jack, having his entire world destroyed, has to learn how to socialize and communicate with others, while learning about the real world they have escaped to. At times he misses Room and wants desperately to return to the place his mother hates. He remembers Room with fondness and it represents his security, while his mother remembers Room the place of her imprisonment, abuse and fear.
This is a page turner, no doubt about it. It makes you contemplate the evil that dwell in some people, the strength and love of a mother for her child and the will to survive.
Old Nick is a psychopath who kidnapped Ma seven years earlier, held her hostage, and subjected her to repeated acts of rape. Ma is a survivor, largely because of her fierce devotion to Jack. She is determined to give him the most normal life possible, carefully rationing his TV time and using the most ordinary events as educational opportunities. And she never lets Jack know they are captive. But one day, as the result of a minor slip-up, Jack catches on and begins to ask a lot of questions about Outside. The way Ma explains the world, and her response to Jack's growing knowledge, turn this story into an intense survival tale.
Emma Donoghue has been widely praised for Room, especially for her ability to create such an authentic narrator in Jack. The reader sees Outside through his eyes, where everything is new -- a completely different perspective from Ma, who lived Outside before. Jack's voice makes even more clear the stark contrast between confinement and freedom.
Room is a suspenseful novel, but also a story of the profound bond between mother and child. A wonderful book.
The world that Jack calls home is not very large, but it belongs to him and Ma. Old Nick sometimes comes at night with a beep beep, but Jack stays very quiet and still in the wardrobe so he never sees him. Everyday is a slightly different from the day before and because it is all he has ever known, he is comforted and content, except sometimes, he does get a little bored. The outside is not real until one day his mom asked him to play a pretend game of be dead in Rug and then once outside, his goal is to find help so he can free his Ma. The world beyond his Room is larger than he could ever have dreamed and above all, more scary than he imagined possible, but he is now five and that means he is a big boy and big boys pretend to brave, even when they are scared.
Told from the perspective of five year old Jack, the book was disturbing on so many levels. Scary, because sometimes I couldn't tell if I was reading a story straight from the news, or reading a fictional book. Scary because it comes too close to mirroring the realities of our world. Scary because I am a mom. If this book was only about the horrific evils that exist in our society, I know I would have been left with nothing but a sick and queasy lump in my stomach. Surprisingly, what I walk away with is not a hyper need to bar my windows or barricade my doors from the dangers lurking beyond my doorsteps, but rather an appreciation for the love and lengths a mother will go to protect the only thing she deems precious enough to live each agonizing day for. Room was not an easy book to read, but it was a story of devotion and survival worth telling.
1) Room is narrated by a five-year-old boy who only knows an 11x11-foot room as his home. He doesn't understand that rain falls from the sky, that cars stay in their lane and that bees can sting you. All the things we understand to be true in our lives would be new experiences to a boy who never spent a day outside. Donoghue did a good job writing about these new experiences - and coming up with all the "little things" that seem to be common knowledge, but not for a boy who lived in seclusion.
2) The American media's treatment of Jack and his mother's story was spot on. Their insistence to not grant this family any privacy reminded me of true media coverage in other heart-wrenching stories. Equally compelling (and so aligned with what happens) is how the media digs at the story from all angles in an attempt to "outscoop" each other. There is little regard for what's best for Jack or his mother.
3) This book was a real page turner. During one section of the book, I did not move from my seat. I was worried that something bad was going to happen, and the suspense was jarring. Few books have that effect on me.
This isn't my typical review, but I hope reading it helps persuade you to give Room a try. It's a compelling, provocative book that makes you think about your life and what you would do in a similar situation. It's worthy of its literary accolades, and I predict that it would make a good movie with the right director and actors. What do you think?
When these two finally escape and emerge into the real world, Jack must learn to cope with unlimited boundaries. Everyday things we take for granted need to be explained and learned, Jack needs constant guidance but his Mother is also dealing in her own way with freedom. These two who have been inseparable now find they have different ways of looking at things, and different levels of acceptance. While Jack remembers Room as a place of comfort, the very idea of that place upsets the Mother to the point of nausea.
I found Room is be a very unique read and it told such a compelling story of human resourcefulness and resilience that it was very hard to put down. I was very moved by Jack’s mother, who overcame such difficulties and showed such devotion and care in the raising of her son. This is a book that truly moved me, and one that I will long remember.
ROOM is Jack's world. Jack is a 5 year boy, imprisoned in an 11x11 shed with his mother. Ma was abducted 7 years ago by Old Nick who visits periodically bringing supplies, and especially the "Sunday Treat." Because Jack knows only what is in ROOM, his world image is limited. They have rug, mattress, chair, table, shelf, stove, toilet, bath, wardrobe and rocker, to all of which Jack attaches almost anthropomorphic characteristics. They watch TV, but, with the exception of Dora the Explorer, he views that as "OUTSIDE" and scary, and mostly not real. He cannot conceive of 'others' as real people. The pair bonds in an extraordinary fashion, and while Jack's intellectual development and vocabulary bloom from all the games they play and the TV they watch, his social development is non-existant. He has never spent a minute separated from his mother.
Reading this book is a chilling experience, but one that is very, very satisfying in the end. Having the story told from the viewpoint of a 5 year old whose only experience of the world is through the prism of TV, the five books his mother has managed to con out of Old Nick, or whatever memories his mother chooses to share is what really makes this such an incredible story. I really don't want to give away anything because the tension needs to build for the reader (or listener) to enjoy the full impact. I listened to the audio where Jack's voice is perfectly done. The cadence is perfectly for a five year old. I intend to get a print copy to add to my permanent collection, but feel this is one book that is just as good in audio (if not better) than print. It is my first 5 star read of the year.
Told entirely from Jack's point of view, Room is unlike anything that I have read. To look at life through the eyes of a child who has never experienced anything beyond the 11 x 11 foot dimension of his confines is amazing. Things that we would take utterly for granted are utterly new and strange to him. It is a sometimes refreshing and frightening perspective, and one that is entirely unique.
Sometimes I found Jack to be a little too intelligent for never having experienced anything outside of Room and Ma (we never discover her real name) seems to have a little bit too much insight on how to care for Jack and the things that he needs to stay healthy for someone who was kidnapped at 19 and no contact with the outside world or guidance on how to raise a child. For instance, knowing that they need time to sunbathe from the light coming through the skylight so that they have a tolerance for sunlight or having Jack focus on things close and then far away (the roof) to help strengthen his eyes seem, at least to me, a little too far fetched for someone in Ma's situation to inherently understand.
These technicalities aside, Room is still an astounding book and one that I couldn't put down. Ma's love for Jack, even when she is at her wit's end with him, and Jack's returned love for Ma, even when he is angry with her and doesn't always understand her reasons for what she does, is evident on every page. Emma Donoghue balances just the right amounts of hope, pathos, suspense and relief to make Room an engaging story without taking any of these elements too far.
I really found this book a drag. It took me by surprise as I was very concerned that I wouldn't cope with the emotional aspect of this story however I found it imotionless. I felt like I was reading a childs imagination of what might be but really wasn't.It was on the very rare occasion that I caught a glimpse of what life might have been like for Ma.
I found Jack's speech annoying. I am a parent and I can't imagine teaching my children to speak the way Ma did. It's a little hard to be critical of Ma as this is not a normal situation and I really can't even imagine how I, personally, would handle it but I just wasn't convinced by this story. It didn't draw me in at all. It felt so very unrealistic much of the time. Funny, that some of the more boring parts of story, such as the medico's at work, seemed the most realistic to me.
I'm afraid I wouldn't recommend this to anyone and I'm very surprised by how many people love this book.
The book divides roughly into two halves, which take place in Room and in "Outside", respectively. The first half introduces us to Jack's life and his views about reality, and there's certainly a lot of interest there. I have to admit, though, that I found this part a bit slow; there's a sense of waiting, and I became impatient to get on with the story. But once Jack leaves Room, the story really picks up. His views of life in Room were interesting, but his attempts to reconcile his former view of the world with external reality are really fascinating. I'd recommend this book to anyone, and I think it would make a great discussion book. There's lots to think about, and it's told in a way that feels completely new.
By writing this review, I am in no way attempting to trivialise, poke fun at or glamourise the serious nature of the crimes committed within the story. This is simply a review concerning the writing itself, and the plot. Indeed, the more people who read this book the more people will become aware that these events are not as rare as we think. Anything that increases awareness regarding such horrific abuse is a good thing in my book.
Considering I'm currently suffering from a highly acidic hangover of the most mind-numbing kind right now, I'm just going to list the main points of contention I have with this book rather than provide a huge essay.
1. Jack's narrative. I can understand that a child who is so severely limited in essentially everything will rely on his mind and imagination more than most. I can even understand him coming to view inanimate objects as friends. However, the manner of writing style that the book is written is simply, well, nauseating. It would have been far, far better had the story been written from Jack's perspective when he was older. There are plenty of examples within the reviews of others as to how he speaks, so I won't provide any samples. But, it's grating and irritating. And goes on for 300 pages.
Although the language used still manages to hit home the events, it's completely off-putting to read sentences that make my cat sound more intelligent. If the point of this was to make it more 'horrific' to hear this story from a five year olds perspective, I have to say that Emma Donoghue missed the mark entirely. I felt more fear waking up this morning, and realising my depleted vitamin B12 levels were going to cause chaos then I did reading the whole book.
2. The main annoyance being spoken about, I'm now going to enter into 'trivial irritant' territory. Ma's constant use of saying 'yeah' all the time. It's totally irrational of me to hate it, but I do! It almost makes her sound sulky, childish and slovenly. I'm not sure if this is a deliberate action to remind us that she was abducted when she was 19, and hadn't had the chance to develop further, but it really does come across as annoying. I'm not saying I expect my characters to speak perfect english all the time, but it would have been nice to see not as many 'yeahs' and maybe something a little different. There are 114 'yeahs' in this book. That's about 50 more than necessary. Sheesh, even a 'Ma looked at me with her sad-eyes, and nodded her head yes' would have been better than '"Yeah", said Ma with sad in her eyes'. Maybe I'm just being too pedantic.
3. Yes! Another trivial irritant! It needs to be asked, but what is Emma's obsession with poo? Poo appears 57 times in the book, and frankly, it's not something I wish to read about every third page. Yes, for the purposes of scene setting the toilet, er, arrangements should be explained. Even when Jack is 'sick', it's necessary to detail Ma's actions in creating a sick atmosphere. What I really don't want to read are things like: "...not sliding out in my poo yet", "...to Toilet and do more poo", "...I sit to poo", "...a bit of poo squirted out my bum", "...poo bag", "...pooed a bit by accident", something about his "poo being too hard", etc etc etc.
Emma is either taking Freud way too seriously, or she has some kind of scat fetish. 'Poo' is everywhere throughout the book, references to poo, poo on the rug, poo in the sea, hard poo, soft poo, broken poo. Everywhere a poo-poo! Again, I understand that Jack is five and narrating the story, but...seriously? I'm surprised that he didn't have another friend - Poo, to go along with Plant, Rug, Rocker et all.
4. I can't help that feel as though Emma has undertaken to write this book in order for it to be mass-produced, all whilst riding on the coattails of the actual victims of similar circumstances. True, it's not based on a particular event or crime, but it really does feel as though it's borderline abuse exploitation, in order to make a few people a quick buck. I certainly hope that she donated some of her payment to the very survivors whose stories run parallel to Jack and Ma's.
Honestly, I haven't researched this book. I don't know whether Emma Donoghue was 'advised' to write the book, whether she was inspired to so that others could learn of these crimes, if she was paid, if she did indeed donate money to a foundation. So, I could be completely wrong. However, to me, the book gives off the impression that it's more to entertain rather than educate. It comes across as though hardly any, or minimal, research was conducted (yes, I've read the thanks & acknowledgments). Or if she did research, it was only to grasp the 'basics', if I can describe it as such.
It feels rushed, cheap, superficial, and incomplete. I will not be reading any further books by the author, after this mangled assault on language. I cannot believe it received a nomination.
On the bright side, given that this book is quite popular, hopefully there are now thousands of people who are somewhat more enlightened concerning the hidden surface of our world, and the evil that humans are capable of. Hopefully, the people who liked the book with lend it to others.
Because of her love, Jack's mother gives him rules for managing his world: TV can only be on for a hour at a time or his brain will turn to mush; hiding in Wardrobe when Old Nick comes keeps him from his anger; looking into the skylight when God's full face is there will make your eyes stop seeing. But the songs and games, the careful schedule, the stories about Old Nick all become shaken when the electricity is suddenly shut off.
Jack's profound descriptions allow us into Room, a world of beauty and subtle truths. We learn of his misconceptions and what looks like real. His mother is his sole source of his knowledge and she keeps feeding his curiosity with her carefully planned bits and pieces of truth until she cannot hold onto their fragile existence any longer.
Sweet, earnest Jack and his unique perspective makes "Room" a gem of a book. The tragedy seen through his eyes is generous, warm, nurturing, and full of faith. Baby Jesus and John the Baptist teach him about friendship and being cousins. The insects are his secret companions. His mother is all-knowing and seems to even be connected to him.
Though the horror in 'Room' is gut-wrenching, the love and life force between Jack and his mother is awe-inspiring. I was captured by the relationship of this mother and son, the writing was simple, astute, and revealing. I saw glimpses of every mother's love in the actions that take place, her sense of survival and her creative and detailed plotting. I read Jack's reactions to his world and remembered raising my own children and their views of an ever-widening world-consciousness, simple yet wise. His character also accurately defines the process of dealing with suffering and the realities delivered to each of us in our lives.
Welcome to Jack’s World. He lives with his Ma, in a small enclosure, they call “Room”.
They are prisoners, being held captive by a man Jack knows only as Old Nick. Since the boy was born here, this is the only place he knows and feels comfortable in. Yes, this is a dark, disturbing premise (loosely based on an actual event) but the story offers so much more, including the importance of love and motherhood. It’s also about resilience and survival. This may not be a book for everyone but for this reader, it worked perfectly. Highly recommended.
Emma Donoghue deftly creates Jack and Ma’s world within an eleven by eleven foot room. Their days are surprisingly interesting, with Ma creating imaginative games for them to play together. But there is an underlying tension, made more poignant by the fact that it is through a five year old’s eyes that we see the story unfolding. Jack is no longer an infant. He is a smart, curious boy who asks a lot of difficult questions. His mother has allowed him to believe that the world does not exist except for the room in which they live, an alternate reality which eventually must be corrected if they are ever to escape Room.
I must admit that the first 40 pages or so of this novel took some getting used to…Jack’s voice is odd. But once I allowed myself to be fully inside Jack’s world, the book began to resonate with me. The daring escape attempt is perhaps one of the most suspenseful and nerve-wracking scenes I’ve read in a long, long time. Ma’s inner turmoil is perfectly captured through the eyes of her observant son – even though he does not fully understand it. What begins as a story of captivity evolves into a deeper novel of mothering, love, hope and the resilience of the human spirit.
It takes a talented writer to write entirely from the point of view of a child – and Donoghue pulls off this feat seamlessly. The relationship between mother and child is beautifully revealed on every level. Donoghue’s ability to draw the reader in and emotionally invest them in the story is brilliant. Room was recently shortlisted for the 2010 Booker Prize…and it is a well deserved nomination. Original, enthralling, haunting, and memorable Room is a novel I highly recommend for readers who enjoy literary fiction.
The genius of this book is that Jack's voice is entirely believable, and his story of the life he has with his mother, who designs each day to keep them healthy, active, interested and entertained, is phenomenal. Perseverance, love, motherhood, and trust - all are explored in ways which enthrall the reader. This book was hard to put down and will be impossible to forget.
But you still might not like it.
One of the reasons for that is the narration -- though that very narration is a major contributing factor to the elevation of this story to something beyond the everyday. The entire novel is told through the eyes and voice of five-year-old Jack, whose whole world consists of Room (an 11' x 11' windowless but skylit cell), its furnishings and objects, and Ma. The narration never shifts from Jack's understanding, even as his world shifts beneath his feet. That perspective is compelling -- it's part of what kept me turning pages -- but it also takes some getting used to. Jack's grammar is particularly articulate for a five-year-old, but has unusual structure and vocabulary. The way Jack thinks about some things can be disturbing -- what he finds commonplace may be squirm-worthy for the reader -- and that too contributes to the way this story sinks under one's skin.
If you can get into the narration and let Jack's eyes be your own for a while, the novel rewards. I won't spoil it all here, because that would be mean, but things change -- as they must -- and part of the glory of this experience is watching Jack try to change too (some of his change-related moments are funny, some cringe-worthy).
I had the good fortune to attend a recent reading of Emma Donoghue's and she described her novel as "celebratory of motherhood" -- I found it to be so, of course, but perhaps even more celebratory of childhood -- both of its charms and its limitations. Jack is our focus, and in many ways he is our hero, though not in the archetypal way. He is also a very real five-year-old boy (apparently Donoghue had young children in the house while writing the novel, so listened in and took advantage of observational opportunities). I appreciated Donoghue's realism throughout the novel, as well as her focus on staying away from sentimentality -- even in the face of significant temptation, given the subject matter. Using a circumstance more suited to a thriller or horror novel, but with no "seen" violence, Donoghue has crafted a work that escapes our voyeuristic tendencies and substitutes a more satisfying focus. Where one might expect to be shocked, one finds delicacy; where one might expect to feel dirtied, one emerges cathartically cleansed.
Bottom line: this is an amazing book. It's probably the most uniquely rendered piece of fiction you will read all year. Though some may not like its narrative style, give it a chance to impress you.
Donoghue's concept is a good one and the pacing of the narrative is decent, but that's all I can recommend about this book. Having five-year-old Jack as the narrator is a cute gimmick, but I don't do cute. Also, Donoghue doesn't even do it particularly well. Jack speaks in baby-talk much of the time, despite the fact that he watches television every day, can read 'Alice in Wonderland' and has an advanced vocabulary. The inconsistency is jarring and really prevented me from finding his character believable.
As others have said, it would have made more compelling reading had the story been told from Ma's point-of-view, or from a combination of Ma's and Jack's. Or perhaps, in the second part of the book, from the grandparents' - I actually found then to be the most interesting characters in the book, so it's a shame they weren't much of a focus. The real grandfather, in particular, and his reaction to Jack would have made for some fascinating reading.
The characters aren't developed all that well, the BIG ACTION SCENE isn't all that exciting and the denouement seems a bit sudden. This could all be because of the limiting nature of Jack's narrative.
However, I thought I'd absolutely hate 'Room,' so I suppose it's something to be said that I polished it off in about three hours. It's definitely a page-turner, but I generally see page-turners as "airport books" rather than Booker short-listed books. How that happened I still haven't figured out.
Ma and Jack are bound to be close, given their constant interaction in the small room, but the interdependency has become pathological in ways. For example, Jack is still breast-feeding at age five. One imagines that Ma wants to make sure he gets sufficient nutrients, since they are dependent on what Old Nick brings them, which is not a lot. But it is clear that Jack is too old for this activity which he initiates by either lifting Ma’s t-shirt or announcing “I want some.” He seems to have an implicit understanding that breast-feeding represents more than just nourishment (oh no! he thinks while in Wardrobe, “Old Nick better not be having some!”) and he already has a problematic penis, which rises each morning with the sun. The Freudian repercussions down the road seem frightening, but Ma is as little interested in stopping this practice as Jack.
Likewise, Ma is fully complicit in the desire to bathe and sleep with Jack. Jack is too dependent on Ma, but he’s five. Ma is too dependent on Jack, and it seems quite unhealthy. But there isn’t much about their situation that is healthy. And Jack is Ma's only reason to keep living.
When Old Nick loses his job, Ma becomes afraid Old Nick will have his house repossessed and therefore need to kill both her and Jack. She comes up with an escape plan that depends on Jack for its success. But he’s just a little kid, and easily distracted. The chances of his messing up are huge. Ma's insistence on his central role makes him scared and angry. He doesn’t have a clue about how desperate their situation really is. The tension is palpable as the plan takes shape; everything is riding on its' success.
Discussion: Emma Donoghue was inspired to write this story by newspaper reports about the actual case of Josef Fritzl, in Austria. Fritzl locked his daughter Elisabeth in a concealed cellar/prison measuring 600 square feet and only 5’6” high. He kept her there for 24 years and raped her repeatedly. She had seven children by him, three of whom stayed imprisoned with her and never saw the light of day. A keyless entry code provided the only access to the secret room, so no one could come or go but Josef. If Josef felt “punishment” was warranted, he would shut off the lights to the room or not deliver food for several days. When the group finally escaped (by the use of a plan similar to that used by Ma in Room), Felix Fritzl, aged five, saw the world for the first time. Donoghue says she was seized by “that notion of the wide-eyed child emerging into the world like a Martian coming to Earth.”
In most ways, I think the author does an excellent job of creating a story that comes entirely out of the head of a five year old boy. Some of Jack’s observations exhibit creative writing at its finest. But some aspects of the story are disconcerting.
Jack has an excellent vocabulary and uses adult words. Disconcertedly, however, his grammar is markedly deficient, especially given the care that Ma shows in nurturing his intellectual development. (Emotionally, however, Jack’s character seems just right; he is at turns loving, funny, self-centered, babyish, helpful, impatient, immature, generous, and eager to please. Ma has the patience of a saint, although every once in a while she “shuts down” for the day and doesn’t get out of bed. Who could blame her?)
The escape plan struck me as very flawed. Old Nick was not exactly trustworthy, and there is no reason for Ma to have expected that he would do what she asked him to do and not do what was easiest for him. She, after all, would never have known the difference. Plus, she knew how nervous Jack was about helping, and how confused he got when he got scared. That it didn’t turn out worse is miraculous.
Evaluation: This book tells a nightmarish story, and yet, since it comes entirely from five-year-old Jack’s perspective, it is much less disturbing than it could have been. Jack is usually more concerned about seeing Dora the Explorer on television than worrying about survival. And the abuse of his mother by Old Nick is something he describes in a confused way without understanding what he is saying. On the other hand, this just makes it all the creepier and suspenseful for the reader. I had a few nightmares from this one, but I’m glad I read it all the same!
To Ma, Room is a twelve-by-twelve nightmare prison, the scene of repeated rapes and beatings since she was kidnapped at nineteen. To five-year-old Jack, though, Room is the cozy nest that Ma has created for him, where he cherishes Plant, eats dinner with Table, and often sleeps in Wardrobe - especially when Old Nick comes in at night. Room is a two-person universe - Jack suspects that even Old Nick is not properly real, though he is more real than the make-believe world Jack sees on TV. But Ma has secrets to reveal, and when she tells Jack that the world he sees on TV actually exists, events begin spinning out of control.
When I first saw a review of Room, I was a bit skeptical; I wondered how a five-year-old narrator could achieve either believability or emotional resonance. How foolish to wonder. Emma Donoghue brings Jack flawlessly to life; his quirky combination of high intelligence and childish innocence makes him the perfect narrator for a story that is, by turns, unbearably tragic and unbearably poignant. Jack is detail-oriented, a trait that seems quite believable in a bright child whose world is extraordinarily small. His word-for-word reporting of Ma's conversations with Nick, blunted by his five-year-old concreteness, lays bare the horror of their lives in a way that an adult narration could not possibly match. Donoghue just nails the inner life of a child. I loved the way Jack personifies so many of the objects around him:
"There's shoes that do on with scratchy stuff that sticks called Velcro. I like putting them open and shut like rrrrrppp rrrrpppp. It's hard to walk though, they feel heavy like they'll trip me up. I prefer to wear them when I'm on the bed, I wave my feet in the air and the shoes fight each other and make friends again."
Oh, Jack. I used to do that too.
So, beautifully drawn narrator, emotional nuance that will make you twist in your chair, rocket-fueled action, and (I know it's a cliche) unforgettable characters. I read this in (almost) one sitting - it WOULD have been one, except my husband, bleary-eyed, begged me to turn out the light because he had to get up at 5 am. And, you know, if there's one thing ROOM will remind you of, it is that that love demands sacrifice at times. I was glad mine was only to hold the last twenty pages til the morning...and to lie awake for hours thinking about Ma and Jack.
I think I'd like to deal with some of the myriad criticisms that this book has received. It does appear to have the Marmite effect (a concept I refer to with a certain amount of blindness since I have never tasted said divisive substance) with many commenting on certain issues of credulity in both character and plot.
Firstly, some have commented that Jack is far too intelligent for a boy turning 5. I disagree entirely. A 5 year old boy who is able to perform simple arithmetic (his sums never stretch beyond adding single digit numbers if I remember correctly) would not qualify as semi-precocious in any run-of-the-mill state school, much less in one who is a captive audience (pardon the tasteless pun) to his teacher with little else to occupy the mind)
Secondly, there is much derision of the 'flatness' (as E.M. Forster would have put it) of the adult characters. To a 5 year old mind, adults are just there, doing what they do. It would have been ludicrous for Jack to begin to discuss adult feelings and emotions beyond simple notions of cause and effect: upset =crying, angry=shouting etc. In fact, I believe that the vagueness of some of the adult characters perfectly represents Jack's world view - everything he sees is a 'new thing': is a fully functioning 'Grandma' or 'Steppa' any different to a 'hammock'?
Thirdly, the escape. I do
Unlike some squirmish critics whose primary reaction was getting the heebie jeebies, I was not really bothered by the breastfeeding as it was presented realistically and in a dramatically clever and significant way. As a symbol running throughout the story it worked on a number of levels, and very successfully.
I didn't feel that way about the interview on the other hand. It seemed like a tabloid free for all rather than an interview with an Oprah-type, or even a Diane Sawyer-type - and let's face it, an Oprah-type is a success for a reason and would not risk alienating her audience by being insensitive and boorish to a damaged woman. I think the reason it failed for me lies with the problem of Jack the narrator needing to witness to it for the readers and to propel the plot.
And the clever little tyke returning to the Room with his mother back to for their mutual closure was rather irritatingly written. Too pat, too neat, too clearly articulated.
I wouldn't recommend this to everyone. Donoghue a cracking writer and the tension she creates is remarkable, but to be honest, I was surprised it was shortlisted for the Booker. It is quite accessible and populist, and is almost a "genre" work (if there is such a "domestic/trauma drama" genre) as much as it is "literary fiction" - (which is a greater criticism of the Booker panels than this writer). It reads like a slightly higher brow version of Jodi Picoult's work in many ways. Which is not a bad thing, as such, as it was free of the neo-pychological navel-gazing that plagues so much "literary fiction" and had a refreshing directness.
Am I the only one who sees this book as a sly, subversive feminist manifesto?
Not that I don’t agree with all the other people (including the Booker Prize nominating committee) who were gripped by the plot and impressed with the heroics of the utterly believable five year old narrator, "Jacker Jack." But, thematically speaking, there is so much more to this book than just original characters and a suspenseful storyline.
First off, it’s no secret that the author wrote this book in reaction to learning about Josef Fritzl, that loony-tune in Austria who kept his daughter in an underground bunker for nineteen years. And, tragically, this sort of story is hardly unique in modern times. It seems as if men are threatened by the ever growing independence of women and these sorts of extreme measures are being resorted to by some incredibly sick individuals in an attempt re-capture some idealized version of a traditional home life or to force women into subservient roles. Ma and her offspring (in this case, the sprightly, spirited Jack) stay home awaiting the arrival of Old Nick, "the man of the house," each evening. He provides them with everything they need and, without him, they could not survive. And Ma’s only role is to raise Jack and provide pleasure for Old Nick. It reads like an incredibly disturbing parody of a 1950’s household.
It’s a shrewd perspective and, as told through Jack’s guileless point-of-view, with all his adorable antics and quirky turns of phrase, an easy one to miss. Funny thing is, Donogue even suggests that Jack, in his own naïve way, might be exploiting Ma as well. Notice how he refers to genitalia using the proper words - penis and vagina, unlike most five year olds who resort to slang like wee-wee or pee-pee. Presumably, because he lives alone with his mother, outside of society, she felt no need to be coy when teaching him to speak. Why then, would the same child always refer to breast-feeding as "getting some" or "having some?" Many readers were understandably creeped out by the constant breast-feeding and, honestly, I think that was the author’s intent. I mean, don’t we usually hear men say they are "getting some" as a euphemism for sex?
And finally, in the second half of the book, Ma makes an indirect reference to Woolf’s seminal feminist essay, A Room of One’s Own, when explaining to Jack that she needs space from him. Again, no felicitous accident.
In the last century, Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own, which argued for the equality of the sexes and E.M. Forster wrote A Room With A View about a young woman’s escape from Victorian repression. And, in that same vein, we can add Emma Donoghue’s masterful Room to that esteemed literary house.
I want you to imagine this room. Now take out all the windows (but you can have one little skylight). Put a locked door on it that cannot be open from the inside. Soundproof it. Strip it down to only the bare essentials: a bed, a hotplate, a wardrobe, a table, two chairs, a rug, a bath, a rocker. You can a TV, a few books, a few games. Get comfy. You’re going to be spending quite a bit of time here. About seven years in fact.
The first few years you’ll be alone except for some nightly visits from the person who has put you in this room. (Let’s call him Old Nick.) Eventually these nightly visits will result in the birth of a child. Your child. Let’s call him Jack. Let’s call you Ma.
You now have a baby in a windowless locked room. You have to raise this child by yourself, while protecting him, as much as possible, from Old Nick.
How would you do it? How would you keep yourself from going insane? How would you provide Jack with as “normal” a life as possible, considering that the only world he has ever known is this room? And, what do you think would happen if someday, someday, you managed to get out of the room?
I believe Emma Donoghue must have went through a thought process like the one I posed to you above, and the results can be found in her brilliantly disturbing yet heartbreakingly beautiful novel ROOM. And, in a genius twist, Donoghue chose to write the novel from the point-of-view of Jack—and this makes all the difference.
By writing from 5-year-old Jack’s point-of-view, we are spared the unbearable horror of Ma’s experience. Instead of being a torture chamber, Room becomes not such a bad place after all. Oh sure, the things Outside that Jack sees on TV seem kind of cool, but they are just pretend. (After all, in Room Jack doesn’t feel wind or see clouds or dogs or other children or animals or dirt.) But Room has plenty to keep Jack busy—from Egg Snake under the bed to Phys Ed time to a seemingly endless variation of word games that Ma has invented. And there is Sundaytreat, which might sometimes even result in chocolate!
And most of all, there is Ma. What child doesn’t want a mother who is always present, attentive and creative? In Jack’s view, Room is a cozy little world of two. Of course, Ma is Gone sometimes, but she always comes back eventually. And yes, Old Nick makes those nightly visits and all kinds of weird creaking sounds, but Jack just hides in the wardrobe. (Ma doesn’t like Old Nick to see Jack.) Room is Jack’s whole world. It is all he’s ever known, and he doesn’t really need anything else.
So when Ma suddenly starts “Unlying” and talking about Outside and how they might get there, you can imagine that Jack might not be all that excited. It is a lot for a 5-year-old to take in. It is like someone told you were going to go live on the moon, away from everyone who loves you. Could you go? What would happen if you made it? What would happen to your world?
I cannot even tell you how brilliant and engrossing this book is and how riveted I was by Jack’s world and, behind it, the darker shadow world that Ma lived in. In some ways, ROOM reminded of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go—in that the protagonists live an almost dream-like existence in a nightmare world, protected and sheltered from the reality of their situation by their innocence and ignorance. Although we see Jack’s story unfold in the book, within it and behind it we come to know Ma’s story too, which is as horrific and nightmarish as anything I can imagine. Yet by not telling the story from Ma’s point of view, Donoghue elevates ROOM to something magical and special and amazing. Yes, this book will disturb you, but it will also uplift you and show you how good can grow from evil, that love can save you, and that what is broken can be put back together again. Read it.