Wednesday 9 November 2011

Book Review | Room by Emma Donoghue

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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.


In the first half of Room, Room is all there is. Just Ma and Jack and meltedy spoon in Room.

They make the very most of it they can. They read to one another from their five books; they sing songs and watch Dora the Explorer; they add to Eggsnake who lives on Floor under Bed, and play games like Dead.

Though Ma remembers a time and a place before Room, from which she was taken seven whole years ago, by a man who pretended to need her help, Room is all Jack's ever known. He's "five and one day. Silly Penis is always standing up in the morning. I push him down."

It's only eleven square feet of space but it's his whole world, and he's happy enough with it. Happy enough, except when Old Nick comes to visit - with Sundaytreat one day a week - and Jack has to hide in the cupboard while Ma entertains Old Nick in bed. At all other times, it's just Ma and Jack and meltedy spoon in Room.

Emma Donoghue has made a career out of fictionalising history; cannily reshaping real cold cases into stories like Slammerkin and The Sealed Letter. In Room she sets her sights on a rather more recent and repulsive crime: the Josef Fritzl case which broke in Austria in 2008. You must remember it. Fritzl locked his daughter Elisabeth in a basement for fully 24 years, raping her repeatedly and fathering, sickeningly, seven children by his own flesh and blood before the police finally cottoned on to his horrendous offenses.

Preempting a predictable public outcry before Room's publication last Summer, Donoghue went on record to say that her latest wasn't so much based on the Fritzl case as triggered by it: "The newspaper reports of Felix Fritzl, aged five, emerging into a world he didn't know about, put the idea into my head. That notion of the wide-eyed child emerging into the world like a Martian coming to Earth: it seized me."

So it comes as no surprise that around the halfway point of Room, Ma and Jack escape the clutches of Old Nick, to allow Donoghue to explore "the sensory overload of modernity" - as a pundit discussing Jack's case puts it - on this human alien. In Donoghue's hands, the rush of such revelation is truly remarkable, but after their initial reorientation - for neither Jack nor Ma find their new-found freedom easy - I dare say Room rather loses its way, digressing into precious observations along the lines of "In the world I notice persons are nearly always stressed and have no time" and "When I was four I thought everything in TV was just TV, then I was five and Ma unlied about lots of it being pictures of real and Outside being totally real. Now I'm in Outside but it turns out lots of it isn't real at all."

It's not exactly heavy-handed, but hot on the heels of such shining insight as there is in the first half of Room, much of this second section feels appallingly obvious.

Stylistically, however, Room is stunning from word one on out. Donoghue opts to tell the tale entirely from Jack's perspective: Jack who has but an elementary grasp of the English language... who confuses meltedly spoon for a friend and refuses to believe anything outside of Room is real, even after he escapes it. His inimitable voice can seem impenetrable to begin with, but give it a minute; that's all it takes for everything to fall into place, quick as you like. And when it does, it's actually hard to go back. So natural and pointed are his inquiries that they reveal the artifice of communication as we understand it, the pointlessness of so much of what we say, not to mention the uselessness of all that we think we want.

Everything is up for grabs in the first part of Room. It's a breath of fresh air, a rare and refreshing glimpse into a mindset so other from our own - yet so very like it - and though the circumstances of their captivity are excruciating, the bond between Ma and Jack is a beautiful thing to behold. For that alone Room deserved to take home the Booker prize last year, and failing that, I take heart in its dominance of the bestseller lists since.

Never mind the conspicuous-by-comparison second half: Room is otherwise so absolutely extraordinary as to make such oversight easy.


by Emma Donoghue

UK Publication: July 2010, Picador
US Publication: May 2011, Back Bay Books

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  1. Yes! So glad you liked this one.

  2. This book is spellbinding. Well written, with wonderful character development. The different sections of the book are very aptly named. Absolutely everyone should read this book.