Author: Emma Donoghue
Genre: Literary Fiction, Suspense
Publisher: Little, Brown (US) / Picador (UK)
Publication Date: September 2010 (US) / July 2010 (UK)
Hardcover: 320 pages
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
It’s Jack’s birthday, and he’s excited about turning five.
Jack lives with his Ma in Room, which has a locked door and a skylight, and measures 11 feet by 11 feet. He loves watching TV, and the cartoon characters he calls friends, but he knows that nothing he sees on screen is truly real – only him, Ma and the things in Room. Until the day Ma admits that there’s a world outside . . .
Told in Jack’s voice, Room is the story of a mother and son whose love lets them survive the impossible. Unsentimental and sometimes funny, devastating yet uplifting, Room is a novel like no other.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did we get this book: Review Copies from the publisher (at BookExpo America 2010)
Why did we read this book: From first glance at the cover and the synopsis, we both immediately wanted Room and made a point of it to procure copies at BEA this year as soon as we arrived. When Room was shortlisted for the Booker prize this year, announced last week, we were even more excited to read this newest title from Emma Donoghue.
I can honestly say that Room, especially its first part, is unlike any other novel I have ever read. This is true not only with regards to setting (the first half of the book is set inside one room) and narrative voice (the book is narrated by a 5 year old), but also when it comes to the story itself and its horrific main topic. I experienced all sorts of emotions reading it, from the growing horror of realising what was happening, to becoming extremely attached to the main character and his own experiences. In that sense, the book is a success and I loved it for that emotional connection. But a few weeks after reading it, the emotional resonance has dwindled and I find myself completely conflicted about the book – it is undoubtedly a good, recommended book, I just find myself unable to reach a conclusion about how good it is.
Room is the story of 5 year old Jack, his Ma and their lives inside Room. Kidnapped when she was 19 by someone they call Old Nick and kept in a single Room ever since, Ma has created a normal life for her son – born inside Room and with no knowledge of Outside or what is really happening – to the best of her abilities. The book is narrated by Jack and it is from his point of view that we get to observe the story unfold: from the moment he turns 5, to Ma’s revelation of what their real situation is and her growing concern that they don’t have much time to the eventual escape and adaptation to Outside. (This is not a spoiler; the book is as much about Room as it is about Outside)
At first it seems almost like an idyllic life like only a 5 year old could ever think: from playing with Ma, and reading books, and doing phys ed and even watching TV (Dora the Explorer is a favourite). It is not until smaller details of their daily routine are revealed to the reader that the realisation of the real horror hits. Like for instance, how they play Scream Every Day But Saturday and Sunday which is a game where Jack and Ma scream from the top of their lungs against the skylight (and the reader is the only one besides Ma that know that this is not a game at all) ; or how Jack has to fall asleep every night in Wardrobe (before Ma takes him to Bed) at around 9 which is when Old Nick comes to visit Ma:
When Old Nick creaks Bed, I listen and count fives on my fingers, tonight it’s 217 creaks. I always have to count till he makes that gaspy sound and stops. I don’t know what would happen if I didn’t count, because I always do.
I don’t think Jack ever realised what those creaking sounds are but the reader knows that Ma is being raped right there and then. I can’t begin to describe how sick I felt reading those parts – heck, for the entire first part of Room I was close to tears at almost every page. Not only because of their ordeal but mostly because of Ma’s inventiveness, and dedication to making Jack’s life as normal as it could possibly be. The first parts of the book, inside Room are some of the most emotional, gut wrenching, difficult yet poignant pages I ever read in my life and it is a beautiful exploration of survival and maternal dedication.
The comes the escape and life Outside and that is when the book loses some of its strength because to me, it reads less like the unique novel that it had been to that point and perhaps more like a play-by-numbers book and I felt really uncomfortable with a couple of things. Let me try and explain this.
It is not a secret that Room has been inspired by real life events like the Josef Fritzl case and the cases of Natascha Kampusch and Sabine Dardenne. I thought the author took great care in writing her book, without making it exploitative and as far as she could be from these cases at the same time that some things were unavoidably similar – at least in the first part, still inside Room.
I find that I have strong feelings about the second half of the book and those feelings come from two places. One is very personal and doesn’t reflect the book – it reflects me as a reader and it comes from the inevitable connection that I make between fiction and real life and how I, as a reader, deal with both when they come together and I worry that to me the lines were too close for comfort. For example: could this book be hailed as a real insight to what it’s like to go through something like that – because I don’t think this is possible. Not because one cannot or should not write about such topic but because I expect that there are many different ways of surviving and experiencing such ordeals – all of them legitimate. And as much as I appreciate the uplifting feel of this particular novel, I would never ever begrudge someone who went through the same experience but did not come out just like Ma and Jack.
I also worry that by asking these questions, I am doing the unthinkable: I am interrogating the text from the wrong perspective.
The second is less personal and more objective: I found, reading the book that Jack’s voice changes rather abruptly once he is Outside. Perhaps that is inevitable because of the sheer amount of new experiences he goes through. But I found it less than organic – in fact when I read passages such as:
…in the world I notice persons are nearly always stressed and have no time […] In Room me and Ma had time for everything. I guess time gets spread very thin like butter over all the world, the roads and houses and playgrounds and stores, so there’s only a little smear of time on each place, then everyone has to hurry on to the next bit.
Also everywhere I’m looking at kids, adults mostly don’t seem to like them, not even parents do. They call the kids gorgeous and so cute, they make the kids do the thing all over again so they can take a photo, but they don’t want to actually play with them, they’d rather drink coffee talking to other adults.
I feel that is not the Jack I knew, talking to me at all. When lessons about being frugal, about the importance of having time, about how the Media will explore situations such as these are passed through the text – and I appreciate that these are all valid things to think – I don’t think JACK would be the one thinking like that. All I hear is a Message and I am usually very uncomfortable with this sort of thing but here I am extra uncomfortable because of the potential exploitative nature of the subject matter.
As I said in the beginning, I feel conflicted about the book. The first part, the claustrophobic feel of Room and Jack’s narrative are amazingly well done and I loved the characters of Jack and Ma. I do have a problem with the second part but am willing to admit that they are more subjective than objective.
Once again, I will diverge with Ana’s opinion. Room absolutely deserves to be on the Booker shortlist as a heartbreaking, poignant, character-focused novel that is both restrained and powerful. Sparse in its prose and subtle, Room wisely veers away from what easily could have been an exploitative, ineffective thriller or a soundboard for authorial self-importance and message-making. Instead, Room never breaks character, doggedly restricting its focal point to young Jack’s unique narrative, constructing a world that is alternately horrifying and wondrous.
How ’bout them apples.
But, seriously, the greatest strength of Room lies in its characterization – that of young JackerJack, our narrator, and his mother, the vulnerable-yet-resilient Ma. The brunt of the novel lies on Jack’s slim, pale, five-year-old shoulders – it is his distorted (or are they?), creative, observantly honest interpretation of the world that is the impetus behind Room. Jack’s perspective is, to say the least, unique. Charming in its observation and choice to give personalities and genders to objects, for example:
I choose Meltedy Spoon with the white all blobby on his handle when he leaned on the pan of boiling pasta by accident. Ma doesn’t like Meltedy Spoon but he’s my favorite because he’s not the same.
But at the same time, cuttingly terrifying (as with Ana’s earlier excerpt of Ma’s nightly visits from Old Nick) – made all the more effective because of Jack’s naivete. Told through Ma’s perspective, Room may easily translated as a gratuitous, sensationalist novel. Filtered through Jack’s innocent, five-year old understanding? Room walks – successfully – the fine line between provocation and exploitation. As Ma’s story unfolds, as we readers learn what exactly “Room” is and how she and Jack have come to be trapped in it, the realization of the situation and its terrifying implications is a powerful revelation (and, might I add, one that readers should discover for themselves without being spoiled by reviews).
While I agree with Ana that the first half of the novel leading up to Ma and Jack’s climactic, nail-biting escape (and truly, it is a harrowing, jittery portion of the novel – I felt my pulse speed up to unhealthy levels) is the more thrilling portion of the overall book, the second half is no less thought-provoking, if of an entirely different appeal. The second half of the novel is every bit as relevant as the first, dealing with the aftermath of escape and the incredible culture shock that comes with freedom after long captivity. For Ma, it has been seven years since her imprisonment from the world, and her adjustment to her robbed youth and reintegration in the world is no easy path. But for Jack? All he has ever known is Room. The appliances in Room, the furniture, the food – they have all been his friends. The television is all Jack has known of the world, and even at that, TV is something Jack sees as a friend, but a make-believe one. For all five years of his life, he has had his mother’s constant presence, her limited knowledge, and her stories (from the Bible to variations of nursery rhymes) as his only companions. And, as such, life outside Room is understandably hard for Jack. Frail, weak, his immune system vulnerable from his lifelong captivity, Jack’s adjustment to the unfathomable world of Outside is not an easy one, on the simplest, first level. Add to Jack’s hesitance the complications of the media, doctors, lawyers, psychologists, and the unique, tangled relationship between Jack and his Ma becomes even more strained. It would have been easy, even tempting, for Ms. Donoghue to take Room to a melodramatic level in these “adjustment” scenes – especially with outsider judgements of Jack and his Ma – but thankfully, the tempered, subtle restraint shown in the first portion of the book is mirrored here. I disagree with Ana’s assessment that there is some larger “Message” or that Jack is a mouthpiece for the author’s opinions; rather, I see Jack’s observations of the world, his blending of fantasy with reality as a preservation of the integrity of the characterization.
Room is a novel of tragedy and growing pains, but ultimately it is a story of hope. It is uplifting. It is the rousing story of a mother and her son surviving in worlds too small and too big, and I finished the novel completely satisfied, both wistful and invigorated.
Room won me over, and it is my sincere hope that others – particularly readers like myself, that tend to stray away from highbrow lit fic novels – give Room a try. As it stands, Ms. Donoghue’s impeccably written latest novel is undoubtedly one of my notable reads of the year.
Notable Quotes/ Parts: Check out the video below for Emma Donoghue’s reading of the first pages of Room:
Also, the official book trailer for Room:
Additional Thoughts: You can find more information about the Man Booker Prize, including the other books shortlisted HERE.
Also of interest is this article published last Saturday in The Guardian, in which Andrew Motion, chair of the judges for the prize talks about the shortlist. We found this part particularly interesting:
We wanted to find books that seemed “the best”, and to base our decisions on what we found in front of our eyes. And how would I characterise this “best”? By all the means that sound familiar, but make their material strange. Good writing (adventurous as well as scrupulous). Imaginative daring (confirming what we feel might be true about the world, by means that are surprising). Historical sense (an ability to see the present in the past, and vice versa, so as to illuminate both).
Ana: 7 – Very Good
Thea: 8 – Excellent
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