Room by Emma Donaghue

Room is billed as a maternal, non-walking, and much less depressing version of The Road. If there’s any similarity, it lies in the symbiotic parent/son bond placed in a strange, horrendous condition. The twist here is that the horror ends halfway through the book, and what ensues is a scenario of out of the pan and into… the media.

The crayon colors are as follows: Terra Cotta, Ruby, Pine Green, and Hypothermia Blue.

Because everybody wants a piece of the amazing mother and son who survived five years together imprisoned in a work shed. That’s what makes Jack, the proclaimed “Bonsai Boy” and this book’s narrator, so special. He’s been born in a single room, and until shortly after his fifth birthday he’s only known the real world to consist of him and his mother. And Rug, and Wardrobe, and Bed, among other inhabitants of Room.

We quickly see the truth behind his circumstances: his mother was snatched off the street by a creep known only as “Old Nick” when she was nineteen and was placed in his inescapable chamber. Two years later she has Jack by him, and finally has a reason to make the best of things.

But Year Five is the one where Ma comes unglued, because now Jack’s asking questions that chip away at her resolve to uphold the existential lie of their life. Conditions in Room take an even nastier turn, and Ma gambles on a Count of Monte Cristo-inspired escape from their prison that pays off.

She is almost as happy as I am for them to get out of the damn place.

Because–and this comes as no surprise–the book’s repetitive until they do. The first half is mostly Jack’s daily account of we play games, I watch TV, she breastfeeds me (which he calls “having some”), and I hide in Wardrobe at night while Old Nick comes in and bitches about everything and goes to “creak the bed” with Ma. Tomorrow we do it all again.

And about Old Nick (you Machiavelli scholars out there catch the reference to Satan). You don’t have to watch Law and Order SVU to know that a sex criminal sees his victims as discardable objects, and so if he likes to imprison them, he imprisons many. So I was waiting on an explanation for Old Nick going to the trouble of engineering a soundproof, state-of-the-art impenetrable bunker in order to house just one young woman (and her rugrat, no less) for seven years plus.

And there isn’t one, except that Emma Donaghue apparently wanted to write a kidnapper-rapist with a strong sense of commitment. Ah, family values alive and well.

Actually, the real explanation is this: Old Nick is a slave to the premise, believability be damned. Much like how Jack’s precociousness either makes him the ultimate posterboy for homeschooling or it also strains credulity in order to fulfill Donaghue’s purpose of having a cute, odd, five-year-old narrator.

Which is an angle that makes Room feel much like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. You alternate between interpreting the reality that exists outside his understanding and enjoying the idiosyncratic observations within it. Many of these point either at ironies we casually accept or his naked terror with life– like when his mom has just told him that people he sees on TV sometimes actually exist: “Firefighters teachers burglars babies saints soccer players and all sorts, they’re all really in Outside. I’m not there, though me and Ma are the only ones not there. Are we still real?”

(His complete inability to understand figures of speech or third-person pronouns is bullshit, though; TV would have helped him there.)

And I Used to Wonder If I Was a Kind of a Momma’s Boy

You’ll watch Jack’s mom in stupefaction of her near tirelessness in engaging her son. The woman is a walking subscription to Highlights For Children. What’s more, she has her work cut out for her in preserving his innocence amidst their abuse at the hands of Old Nick: “‘You know how you like to play with cars and balloons and stuff? Well, he likes to play with my head.’ She taps it.” I started out having enormous sympathy for her, but I’m with Jack–I liked her much better in Room than Outside.

To my pleasant surprise, I rarely found the sentimentality overpowering; I actually quite like the moments when Jack says something matter-of-factly to Ma and is completely unaware that he’s just renewed her will to live for at least a few more days.

Then we watch their separation, both socially enforced (Ma needs serious couch trip time, as you’d imagine) and emotional. The latter because Jack is interestingly, yet understandably, lukewarm on leaving Womb, I mean Room, which alienates him from Ma, who herself remains alienated from even her family. The rest of the book is Jack’s coming to terms with the outside world with the help of his eager grandparents.

Eventually the book decides to end, and with as much of a plot catalyst behind it as a trip to Del Taco.

It’s cuter than it is deep, but it’s frequently clever; getting past the implausibilities, there are certainly worse books for those who want to splash around near the shallow end of the book club pool. I heard it’s been shortlisted for the Booker. I’d personally longlist it.

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2 thoughts on “Room by Emma Donaghue

  1. Old Nick is a slave to the premise, believability be damned. Much like how Jack’s precociousness either makes him the ultimate posterboy for homeschooling or it also strains credulity in order to fulfill Donaghue’s purpose of having a cute, odd, five-year-old narrator.

    Yes, thank you. Even though I sped through the novel, I had many complaints post-read, most of which you detailed here. Once they left the room, it seemed like the narrative disintegrated — then again, they couldn’t have stayed in Room, because what could Donoghue write about, as subtlety isn’t really her strong suit?

    Although Jack’s voice and character were, as you say, cute, I do wonder what could’ve happened if Donoghue chose another point of view. Sure, Jack-as-narrator is this book’s selling point, but could it have been a better book if he weren’t? Man.

  2. Pingback: Room by Emma Donoghue « Been There, Read That

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