Room, the seventh book from 40 year-old author Emma Donoghue, is probably the most unique and original novel I have ever read. The book has been shortlisted for a number of prestigious prizes, including the man Booker Prize 2010 and deservedly so.
It’s told from the point-of-view of five-year-old Jack, who lives with his mother (referred to throughout as ‘Ma’) in the titular room. What Jack doesn’t realise is that they are there because his mother was abducted aged 19 and has been kept in what Jack calls ‘Room’ for the last seven years. Though he calls it Room, it is actually a secure cell. She is raped by her captor almost every night, but Jack doesn’t understand this or what ‘Old Nick’ does when he comes to visit.
Door’s made of shiny magic metal, he goes beeep beep after nine when I’m meant to be switched off in Wardrobe.
Jack has no concept of outside. Room is all he has ever known. It is filled with objects which are familiar and important to him, all written with capital letters – Bed, Wardrobe, Meltedy Spoon, Rug. They have a TV, but he has no idea that anything he sees on it is real. He thinks the only things that are real are him, Ma, Room and the objects within it. He has never spoken to anyone other than his mother until he turns five and Ma decides it is time to tell him the truth about the outside world, setting in motion a risky escape plan. The second half of the novel takes place Outside as Jack and Ma attempt to come to terms with real life. It’s particularly difficult for Jack, who has to learn how to relate to people other than Ma, as well as the sheer scale of Outside and how life there works. For example, he doesn’t understand that they can get things for themselves rather than having to ask Old Nick for them. He’s not used to anything. On an outing with his Grandma, he gets sunburnt because he has never been exposed to sunlight before. He can’t use stairs because he’s never had to before.
The book is inspired by real-life cases like that of Natasha Kampusch and Josef Fritzl’s daughter. You’d think that would make the novel depressing, but telling it from Jack’s perspective was a stroke of genius as he doesn’t understand the full horrror. The reader can infer it, but that’s all. For example, one of the things they do is a game called ‘Scream’, where they stand near the Skylight shouting as loudly as they can. To Jack it’s just a game, but to the reader it is obvious that Ma is attempting to attract attention. I also wondered if reading a whole book told from the point of view of a young child might get tiresome, but it’s a tribute to Donoghue’s talent and lightness of touch that it doesn’t. Jack is curious and exuberant, he occasionally has tantrums but is overall very advanced for his age and wel-adjusted for his situation.
Ma provides Jack with this best environment she can in the circumstances. She limits the amount of TV he’s allowed to watch, they exercise and make crafts together and she teaches him things like vocabulary. Ultimately this is a tale of maternal love overcoming all boundaries.