“Room” by Emma Donoghue

A friend of mine (who, by the way, is the author of a fantastic short fiction blog that should be checked out) recently told me I should read Emma Donoghue. She specifically recommended that I read a collection of short stories in which she retells and modernizes fairy tales; but since I have recently read something similar by Jean Thompson (I reviewed it a few posts ago), I wasn’t quite up to more of that right now. Nonetheless, I was curious about the author so I looked up her bibliography and found a lot of praise and attention bestowed upon Room, so I picked it up. And am I glad I did! The novel was unlike anything I ever read, and I can honestly say that I have never been overcome with so many emotions while reading before now.

I wasn’t completely prepared by how affecting and intense this book would be. I don’t usually pay attention to trigger warnings, but it should be said that the content, themes, and tone of this novel are troubling and intense – some of these involve rape, violence towards women, kidnapping, and the presence of a child throughout. Readers sensitive to these issues may have a hard time with the book.

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The story takes place in the Room of the title. That is not a typo: the world of the two characters, Ma and her five year old son Jack, is a contained 11 square foot space. Jack has never been outside of it. Therefore, everything that surrounds him takes on an almost animated quality and the objects that make up his life and world are actual characters to him, and therefore capitalization is used to refer to them. Rug, Bed, Closet… To Jack they are components of his life, with specific functions in relations to him. Jack is also the narrator of the story. We learn through his narration what makes up the daily activities the make up his life inside of Room, and for such a small space his routine is quite complex. Ma, a 26 year old who has spent seven years in Room, makes sure that Jack only watches a maximum of two hours of television a day (to prevent brain rotting) – and Dora is his favorite show to watch. There are daily rituals built around bathing, exercise, meals, nap, and even breastfeeding. This last point is an interesting addition by Donoghue, it is a very important component of Jack’s days, and he refuses to be weaned off even when his mother recommends they stop – his response each time: No way, Jose.

Food and supplies are provided by Old Nick, as well as the Sunday Treat that Jack is always looking forward to. Old Nick takes his name from a cartoon watched an undisclosed amount of time earlier about an evil man who creeps into a house at night, scaring the tenants. We never learn his real name (nor Ma’s, for that matter). Old Nick is the kidnapper and jailer to the mother and son. Jack never sees his face because Ma forces him to sleep in Closet on the nights that Nick visits; the next morning groceries appear when Jack awakens, which makes him happy unless green beans are part of the deal, he hates green beans. Some days Ma is “Gone” and Jack must fend for himself – Ma suffers from tooth aches and depression so when she is depressed in a near catatonic state Jack simply refers to he as not being present. For such dire circumstances, though, Jack is fairly well adjusted and precocious with advanced vocabulary and cognition.

Donoghue is a master at writing and provoking emotions and reactions in the reader. Her descriptions are so vivid that a sequence involving throw-up had me actually gagging. Parts of the book are so funny I laughed out loud (I am sure my fellow train passengers thought me strange). Donoghue also accomplished something that no other writer ever has: I teared up on three different occasions, which took me completely by surprise. She also is great at building tension – sometimes with suffocating results. The reader feels the claustrophobia of being stuck in the room, the tense atmosphere is palpable and suffocating – yet she never takes it too far to the point where the reader is begging for mercy, she always seems to know exactly when and how to ease the tension and provide some much needed relief (comedic or otherwise).

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Emma Donoghue

The one thing that doesn’t completely ring true is Jack’s narrating voice. We know that he is precocious with an advanced vocabulary, yet he is only five years old. When quoting him directly we can clearly see that he is still learning correct speech patterns (he especially makes mistakes with irregular past tenses), so when he is able to articulate complex structures and ideas in the prose portions it is not coherent with his character. It is a bit distracting, but it is necessary. Had Donoghue truly replicated a five year old speech even in the sections absent of dialogue the book would have simply become too irritating or frustrating – yet it was clearly fundamental that we see everything through Jack’s eyes, otherwise the horrors and nature of their lives would have been much too awful to handle for over 300 pages. If we allow for this creative license, the book stands as a masterpiece.

So much of the plot centers on the reader knowing just as much as Jack does, so I will refrain from discussing the developments of the plot, let it just be said that it all works and it is a success of a novel. I will definitely be checking out more of Donoghue’s works since due to this novel I now trust her implicitly to deliver fantastic works of fiction. I never felt pandered to, her vision and voice (even though filtered through Jack) were clear, bright, and breathtaking. I cannot recommend this book more. It will stay with me for a very long time.

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