Room by Emma Donoghue


Jack’s a five year old boy, living in Room with Ma. While it is clear to the readers that the two of them are being held captive by a psychopath under decidedly unpleasant conditions, Jack, knowing nothing else but this sharply delineated environment, thinks little of its limitations. He plays, reads, complains about having to eat his green beans, wants to watch more television than his mother permits and generally enjoys himself as best he can within the 11’x11′ sized shed in which he lives.

There are dark spots, though perhaps more obviously horrifying to adult readers of this book. There are the visits from “Old Nick” (his mother’s captor); he hides in Wardrobe and counts while he waits for his Ma to give the all clear; he counts his teeth, the bed creaks, his teeth again, the number of days until his next birthday, whatever it takes to occupy the time until it’s all right to emerge from hiding. On several occasions, his Ma is “gone”, withdrawn into a depressive fugue state by her circumstances, and Jack must care for and entertain himself until his Ma returns. Even these are so integral a part of his life that they do not seem strange to Jack; he accepts them and does not analyze them as an adult would.

As the book begins, Ma has begun to reveal to Jack that there is a world outside their Room, that she has a family other than himself and a life before this room and this boy, that the television programs he watches are not other planets but real documentaries about that world outside this room. Not surprisingly, however, Jack’s not buying it.

About halfway through the book, shortly after Jack’s fifth birthday, matters come to a head. Ma, never named, plots an escape by convincing “Old Nick” that Jack is ill enough to require a visit to the ER; Old Nick, perhaps mindful of the Fritzl case, refuses to take the boy, at which point Ma moves on to plan B: Jack’s death. She rolls him up in Rug, and persuades Old Nick to take the body away with him when he leaves that night. Brave as the hero of “Jack and the Beanstalk”, Jack squirms out of the rug and half-falls, half-jumps out of the truck bed, landing at the feet of a man out walking his dog and child in the evening air. “Old Nick” speeds away when he realizes what has happened, leaving Jack to the mercies of the bystander, and later the police.

Through GPS and plat maps, the police quickly narrow down which property Jack must have come from, and release Ma. The local government agencies quickly whisk the two into protective custody in a psychiatric treatment center. All this is strange to Jack, and not entirely pleasant: simply the noise of a world that includes more than himself and his mother is overwhelming, not to mention the possibility of choosing his own lollipop from a basket of rainbow flavors after his immunizations and dental treatment. Syrup on french toast is an alien concept, as is choosing between two different vegetables. Other children are mystifying. Paying for things you select in a shop is confounding. Sunburns and bee stings are startling. And so on.

On the plus side, Donoghue rarely wavers from the perspective of the narrator. While Jack is a very precocious five year old, having had only the companionship of one singular adult, there is little he comprehends about this strange new outside world, which is described for the most part in terms he might use. On the minus, that concentration on one narrator, and a young one at that, might grate on readers’ sensibilities. Jack’s own detachment and egocentric nature (not unusual for a five year old!) remove much of the potential horror from the scenario. His inability to truly understand what is going on, and his mother’s efforts to separate him further from what Old Nick is doing to her may render the trauma of the events no more than a wad of cotton wool emotionally.

On the plus side, using a five-year-old child with constrained experience as the narrator in a first person limited-perspective novel may temper the story for readers not prepared to deal with a situation of this sort. On the minus, that choice of narrator does rather severely limit the perspective an author may use. The fact that this is all Jack has ever known could either mute the horror of the situation to the point of innocuous blandness or heighten the nightmare through what the author does choose to include through the filter of a little boy’s lack of understanding of what’s actually happening. Donoghue skirts mawkishness and horror without descending into exploitation or grotesquerie.

Ripped straight from the headlines, this is a story about abuse and mental illness of the kind that most people can only imagine. The nature of the plot is such that it may be triggering for people who are connected in some way to such cases, but on the whole this is a fairly simple non-threatening way of reading more about them. I, like (I think) most readers, am glad that this is the closest I’m likely to ever come to such things.

New York Times review
The Guardian

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