Room is the seventh novel from 40 year old author Emma Donoghue, one that has earned her universal acclaim and that put her on the shortlist for the 2010 Man Booker Prize for fiction.
A précis of the narrative makes it sound like a horror story, but Donoghue herself says that Room ‘is a universal story about parenthood.’ A mother and her son are kept imprisoned by their captor, who only visits to deliver supplies and rape the mother in the 11’ X 11’ shed that is their cell. We see the world through the eyes of 5 year old Jack. The reader has to do a lot of emotional work to figure out what is going on in Jack’s head, trying to interpret through Jack’s naïve pair of eyes what he thinks about the modern world.
There are certainly some similarities that can be drawn with the recent cases of incarceration, especially that by Josef Fritzl of his daughter, and Donoghue admits that the Fritzl case was the spark for this novel, although from the point of view of the child as victim if offers a unique perspective on the issue.
The voice of Jack is the key to the success of the book, with the flavour of a 5 year old but the coherency of an older person, although it takes a while to get used to. Ma has devoted everything to nurturing her son, implementing a strict daily routine and thereby preserving her own sanity in the process. There is a television in the shed, but Ma limits viewing time in case it turns their brains to mush! One day Ma tells Jack that the make-believe world he sees on TV is, in fact, real and that there really is an outside world where the same things he sees on the television exist.
Eventually, Ma devises an escape plan and the setting moves to the “Outside” where Jack is suddenly thrust into a terrifyingly different world. We share his confusion and fear and his anger at having to share Ma with others. Jack’s lack of understanding of just how awful and serious a situation they had been in lends poignancy to the story’s emotional depth.
Donoghue manages to create a narrative that combines themes of love, horror and survival with the bond between child and parent and ends up with something that is both vile and beautiful at the same time. Room is touchingly humorous, powerful and a page-turner that I couldn’t put down. It certainly makes you think about what is important in life