Imagine living within the confines of a 12x12 room, the only natural light coming from a skylight, a television your only link to the outside world. That’s just what Irish-Canadian novelist Emma Donoghue does in Room, a book so original and daring it recently landed on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize.
To five-year-old Jack, Room is his entire world, where he was born and where he lives with Ma, where he learns and plays. It is also where, at night, Jack crawls into Wardrobe to sleep, and to hide when Old Nick visits his mother (when the bed squeaks). For Jack, Room is the only home he’s ever known, but for Ma it’s a prison where she’s been held captive for seven years after being abducted at the age of 19.
Told in the pitch-perfect voice of a five-year-old boy raised in captivity, Donoghue’s stunning novel offers a unique portrait of one mother’s fierce devotion.
If this sounds like the stuff of tabloids, luridly sensational or gimmicky, in Donoghue’s talented hands it’s anything but. Told from Jack’s perspective, Room turns the usual victim/survivor story on its head, transforming it into something else entirely—a meditation on the nature of reality and a testament to the ferocity of a mother’s love.
In a conversation from her home in London, Ontario, Donoghue readily admits, in a lilting Irish brogue, that readers might at first balk at the idea of a five-year-old narrator, but believes that they will “relax into it after a few pages.” A native of Dublin, Donoghue received a doctorate in English literature from the University of Cambridge before launching her writing career. In 1998, she moved to Canada, where she and her partner are raising their two young children.
Her son was five while she was writing Room, and she says, “The dialogue came very easily because I know what they’re like—five-year-old boys in particular. I wanted to get Jack at that moment when [children] suddenly move from the very concrete, ‘where’s my next snack coming from,’ to the big questions. At that age they have this astonishing ability to tackle abstract issues and then swing right back to concerns about toys.”
Donoghue perfectly captures that liminal stage. Jack’s voice is wholly believable and pitch-perfect, and in him Donoghue has created a narrator who is endearing without being cloying, one whose phrasing, thoughts and insights are by turns touching and astute.
Coming across as sentimental or cutesy was, Donoghue says, her biggest fear. “Getting the readers to care is a challenge with any novel, but with this novel I knew they would care when they worked out what the situation was, so then my challenge was to rein in the sentiment.”
A writer of literary historical novels (Slammerkin, The Sealed Letter, Life Mask) Donoghue admits that Room marks a dramatic departure for her. “I’ve often been inspired by fact in the past, but it’s never happened to me in the present. I happened to hear about the Fritzl case in Austria, but that just gave me the hook, the notion of a child raised in a room not realizing that there was an outside world. That’s as much as I took from it.” (Interestingly, Donoghue had already completed the novel before the Jaycee Dugard case in California came to light.)
“I read up about a lot of those kinds of cases, but I deliberately kept the story in my book very different from all of them because I really didn’t want the book to be in any way like true crime,” she says. “I was interested in boiling down those situations to the essence of confinement and captivity.”
Donoghue stresses that she never intended for Room to be a realistic depiction of life in captivity. To that effect, she deliberately made Ma and Jack’s living conditions far better than in real-life cases, making their quarters an above-ground building with proper light and ventilation. She also didn’t want Room to “read like a treatise on male violence.”
“I didn’t want it to be about child abuse or about appalling neglect,” Donoghue says. “I wanted it to be just about the locked door. What if everything else is fine, but you’re locked away from the world?”
At times, Room has the feel of a macabre fairy tale—like a modern-day Rumpelstiltskin. “There’s no denying those overtones,” the author says. “I deliberately chose a common name for Jack because I wanted him to be like a hero in a fairy tale.” She’s quick to add, however, that though Room can be read on many levels, she’d rather readers understand it as a “real” story with authentic, true-to-life characters.
Above all, she explains, she was “trying to create a kind of test case for a mother’s love.” Strange as it may sound, Donoghue says that the simplicity of the story—a mother and child spending uninterrupted time together—is what has resonated with readers most. “Oddly enough, people have responded in a kind of nostalgic way. Nobody wants to idealize imprisonment, but many of us have such complicated lives, and we try to fit parenting in alongside work and socializing. . . . We try and have so many lives at once, and we run ourselves ragged.”
“Today parenting is so self-conscious and worried, so I wanted to ask the question, how minimally could you do it? One parent in one room. Would that do?”
Room seems to say yes, at least for a time—and with a young, resourceful mother like Ma. (A note to all mothers: prepare to feel inadequate as you marvel at Ma’s mothering[Tue Mar 11 17:26:39 2014] enhancedContent.pl: Wide character in print at E:\websites\aquabrowser\IMCPL\app\site\enhancedContent.pl line 249. skills and instincts.) “She really civilizes and humanizes Jack; he’s not a feral child,” says Donoghue. “She passes along her cultural knowledge to him, from religion to tooth-brushing to rules.”
Despite limited space and resources, by day, the two engage in “Phys Ed,” cooking lessons, model-making, storytelling, crafts, and standing under their skylight and screaming (for help, though Jack thinks it’s a game). Although they watch television for education and distraction, Ma limits its use, warning that it can turn your brain to mush.
As a reader, it’s easy to be lulled by the rhythm of their days until the horror of their situation reasserts itself (and the harrowing second half of the book begins). “It is a nightmare for Ma, but she’s managed to create an idyll for Jack within it, so she benefits too. She gets to escape from her situation by entering into this fantasy that they live in this world of only two people,” Donoghue says. “In a way they are their own society.”
This unique relationship gets right to the heart of Room—a book that illuminates the intimate bond between mother and child, and finds beauty in the unbearable.
Copyright 2010 BookPage Reviews.
Talented, versatile Donoghue (The Sealed Letter, 2008, etc.) relates a searing tale of survival and recovery, in the voice of a five-year-old boy.
Jack has never known a life beyond Room. His Ma gave birth to him on Rug; the stains are still there. At night, he has to stay in Wardrobe when Old Nick comes to visit. Still, he and Ma have a comfortable routine, with daily activities like Phys Ed and Laundry. Jack knows how to read and do math, but has no idea the images he sees on the television represent a real world. We gradually learn that Ma (we never know her name) was abducted and imprisoned in a backyard shed when she was 19; her captor brings them food and other necessities, but he's capricious. An ugly incident after Jack attracts Old Nick's unwelcome attention renews Ma's determination to liberate herself and her son; the book's first half climaxes with a nail-biting escape. Donoghue brilliantly shows mother and son grappling with very different issues as they adjust to freedom. "In Room I was safe and Outside is the scary," Jack thinks, unnerved by new things like showers, grass and window shades. He clings to the familiar objects rescued from Room (their abuser has been found), while Ma flinches at these physical reminders of her captivity. Desperate to return to normalcy, she has to grapple with a son who has never known normalcy and isn't sure he likes it. In the story's most heartbreaking moments, it seems that Ma may be unable to live with the choices she made to protect Jack. But his narration reveals that she's nurtured a smart, perceptive and willful boy—odd, for sure, but resilient, and surely Ma can find that resilience in herself. A haunting final scene doesn't promise quick cures, but shows Jack and Ma putting the past behind them.
Wrenching, as befits the grim subject matter, but also tender, touching and at times unexpectedly funny.Copyright Kirkus 2010 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Five-year-old Jack and his Ma enjoy their long days together, playing games, watching TV, and reading favorite stories. Through Jack's narration, it slowly becomes apparent that their pleasant days are shrouded by a horrifying secret. Seven years ago, his 19-year-old Ma was abducted and has since been held captive--in one small room. To her abductor she is nothing more than a sex slave, with Jack as a result, yet she finds the courage to raise her child with constant love under these most abhorrent circumstances. He is a bright child--bright enough, in fact, to help his mother successfully carry out a plan of escape. Once they get to the outside world, the sense of relief is short lived, as Jack is suddenly faced with an entirely new worldview (with things he never imagined, like other people, buildings, and even family) while his mother attempts to deal with her own psychological trauma. VERDICT Gripping, riveting, and close to the bone, this story grabs you and doesn't let go. Donoghue (The Sealed Letter) skillfully builds a suspenseful narrative evoking fear and hate and hope--but most of all, the triumph of a mother's ferocious love. Highly recommended for readers of popular fiction. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 4/15/10.]--Susanne Wells, P.L. of Cincinnati & Hamilton Cty.[Page 67]. Copyright 2010 Reed Business Information.
Room is home to young Jack, a prison to his mother, and power to Old Nick. Jack's world explodes when his mother sends him on a mission that will change the lives of all three. VERDICT This original and unforgettable novel, with contemporary and timeless themes, is even more affecting for being told from the point of view of a child. [LJ 8/10; LJ Best Book of 2010][Page 101]. (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
At the start of Donoghue's powerful new novel, narrator Jack and his mother, who was kidnapped seven years earlier when she was a 19-year-old college student, celebrate his fifth birthday. They live in a tiny, 11-foot-square soundproofed cell in a converted shed in the kidnapper's yard. The sociopath, whom Jack has dubbed Old Nick, visits at night, grudgingly doling out food and supplies. Seen entirely through Jack's eyes and childlike perceptions, the developments in this novel--there are enough plot twists to provide a dramatic arc of breathtaking suspense--are astonishing. Ma, as Jack calls her, proves to be resilient and resourceful, creating exercise games, makeshift toys, and reading and math lessons to fill their days. And while Donoghue (Slammerkin) brilliantly portrays the psyche of a child raised in captivity, the story's intensity cranks up dramatically when, halfway through the novel and after a nail-biting escape attempt, Jack is introduced to the outside world. While there have been several true-life stories of women and children held captive, little has been written about the pain of re-entry, and Donoghue's bravado in investigating that potentially terrifying transformation grants the novel a frightening resonance that will keep readers rapt. (Sept.)[Page ]. Copyright 2010 Reed Business Information.