Emma Donoghue’s Room is a novel you almost can’t escape in bookshops at the moment. However, having read the synopsis, I’d almost managed to convince myself that it was a kind of 1984 style novel in which everyone lived in isolated pods. Not so. In case you didn’t guess, Room is a unique story of entrapment and escape told from a child’s point of view.
In fact, Room seems to be directly inspired by real-life imprisonment stories like Austria’s Josef Fritzl and his family. It revolves around the child, Jack, who was conceived and born ‘in captivity’. His mother – kidnapped and locked in a modified shed for seven years – gives him as normal an upbringing as she can. She forges a routine for them to keep them sane, but she chooses to let Jack believe that there is no outside world.
They have a television set, but Jack believes everything on TV is a fiction. It’s not real if it doesn’t exist in Room.
The narrative conceit of telling the story through the voice of a 5 year old is initially off-putting, but the reader is soon piecing together information through his innocent observations. It becomes clear that their only link with the outside world is Old Nick – who provides food and supplies and visits in the night. Old Nick will get in bed beside Ma while Jack hides in the wardrobe and counts the creaks of the bed. It’s an horrific image because the boy has no idea what’s happening only a few feet away from him. But we, as adults, know that what’s happening is not consensual.
You’ll find yourself getting rapidly engrossed in this book – once I got hooked I stopped everything else until I was finished. The horrors that unfold – a nineteen year old girl, captured on a university campus, locked up, routinely raped, pregnant twice – the first time a stillbirth, the second time with Jack – raising a child in the most bizarre of circumstances the best way she could. You end up empathising with the mother through Jack’s narrative.
Eventually the pair escape Old Nick’s clutches. The latter half of the book focuses on Jack’s introduction to Outside – he and Ma become the centre of a media storm and spend weeks at a psychiatric hospital. Donoghue pulls in amazing detail here – from the facemasks to protect Jack from germs he’s never been exposed to before to Ma’s defensive interview in which the press seem to have already decided on the story and are just looking for quotes to back up their editorial.
I’m not a fan of those horrible novels that describe abuse in almost fetishistic detail. Room could easily have been one of those books, but Jack’s story censors the worst parts while leading us through his shocking discovery of the outside world. Nor is there any padding here – Donoghue gives us an insight into Jack’s routines before blowing his entire world apart. And there are plenty of twists and unexpected events that play out before the novel’s over.
What’s particularly impressive is how we build up a picture of Jack’s Ma through his narrative – she comes across as amazingly plucky and intelligent. She’s not perfect: her prolonged breastfeeding is evidence of that, but also evidence of the abnormal life she was living. Should she have told Jack about the outside world, or would that have agitated him when he could never leave Room? You get a keen awareness of the unique dilemmas that Ma would face during her captivity. It’s no wonder she experiences her own difficulties when she’s freed.
All in all, Room is a book that’ll leave you subtly uplifted, even after all the bad stuff that happens to Jack and his Ma. It’s an engrossing read, and like I say, there’s no fat in it at all. At 321 pages, it’s a fairly quick read, especially once you get used to Jack’s way of phrasing things.