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Room By Emma Donoghue, book reviewMa loves Jack and Jack loves Ma. Each is the centre of the other’s world which might seem natural for a mother and her 5-year old son but in this case it’s more than just a cliché. They are each other’s only company with the exception of the nocturnal visits from Old Nick, the man who brings them food and other provisions and keeps them alive. Their home is Room – an impenetrable 11 foot by 11 foot modified garden shed that represents the only world that Jack has ever known. We meet him on his fifth birthday when we are introduced to this articulate and imaginative child who lives surrounded by his friends, Wardrobe, Bed, Table, Shelf, Rug and all the other inanimate objects that fill his living space. He and Ma eat simply, recycle and reuse everything, create games that fill their time, make toys, sing songs and tell stories. He reads his few books, does his exercises in the tiny space, watches television where the characters are his friends but all of the things outside Room are just part of Outside, a place his mother has told him isn’t real. But Jack is starting to spot the inconsistencies. If Outside isn’t real, then where does Old Nick get their provisions? It’s all a lot for a young mind to process.

It won’t take readers long to piece together the reality of Jack and Ma’s life – she was the abducted 19 year old victim of the much older man who locked her up, impregnated her and on whom she and her child now depend for everything. Ma longs to escape but for Jack it’s the only world he knows and it’s a comfortable place of familiarity and love. When Ma becomes concerned that Old Nick might lose his job and his home, she’s fearful for their safety and hatches plans to escape but Jack just wants to put off any action – he’s where he knows, where he feels safe surrounded by his things.

The book moves in three stages, each equally compelling to the reader. The first and most initially shocking but also oddly endearing phase is their time in Room and is filled with the minutiae of filling 24 hours a day in a limited space and with restrictions galore. It’s a time of innocence – a ‘Before the Fall’ stage for Jack. The second addresses the first few weeks that Ma and Jack spend in Outside, initially at a care facility where they’re being protected from the prying eyes of the paparazzi. Outside is a scary place for Jack – too big, too full of stuff and a place where nobody understands him or he them but at least Ma’s there to look after him. People don’t know what to make of him. He looks like a girl with his long hair, the public are fascinated by him but Ma’s father can’t look Jack in the eye, seeing him not as a grandson but as the physical manifestation of his daughter’s years of sexual abuse. The third and saddest section is Jack away from Ma and living with the family who are struggling to understand him just as much as he struggles to fit in with them. Jack finds Outside to be a place of incredible wastefulness and confusion. Can he and Ma get back what they lost when they left Room?

Room is told entirely in the words and from the point of view of Jack and carries an endearing and sometimes upsetting naivety that’s unlike any voice I’ve seen written on the page. Emma Donoghue has created a character whom it’s almost impossible not to relate to and to care about. His strange way of expressing things is consistent with his restricted experience of the spoken word and despite our observation that his world inside Room is horrible, we can still understand why it feels like home to him just as much as we can understand why Ma longs to get out.

“The ghoulish and morbid fascination that the media and the public take in the lives of people like this ring true.”

I’ve read several first hand accounts by victims of incarceration – for example Natasha Kampusch, locked up by Austrian Wolfgang Priklopil and Sabine Dardenne, one of the few survivors of the Belgian paedophile Marc Dutroux. The interplay between the captives and their captor ring true to the accounts of real survivors – as does the reaction to the post-captivity world. Perhaps the better parallel is with the Austrian Josef Fritzl who locked up his own daughter in his cellar and fathered many children by her, or with the victim found more recently in a garden shed in the USA with her children who’d never known the outside world. It’s perhaps the realisation that Room isn’t in the realm of fantasy – it’s something that happens and is probably (God help the victims) still happening around us now. There are almost certainly women like Ma locked up today whose families think they are dead and who are locked away as the victims of men like Old Nick.

Also very realistic are the reactions of Ma and Jack to the outside world and of the outside world to them. The ghoulish and morbid fascination that the media and the public take in the lives of people like this ring true. What do you do when all you want is to run away and hide but people are waving money under your nose, offering you the wherewithal to give your son the future you dream of for him but only if you take the media intrusion before your story blows over and they move on to the next shock-horror human-interest saga? Do you sell out and if you do, how can you live with yourself? How do you deal with the behaviour of family who thought you were dead and came to terms with it? All these issues and many more are revealed through the observation of the innocent child.

Room was short-listed for the Booker Prize. It’s the first of the short-listed books that I’ve read (I got the set from The Book People) but I struggle to imagine that the others could have been better – especially the one which won.

Room by Emma Donoghue
Published by Pan Macmillan, Aug 2010, 320pp

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by Emma Donoghue

4 Comments on "Room"

  1. elkiedee
    13/01/2011 at 12:32 Permalink

    I didn’t like the winning book very much (Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question) – I much preferred Room and the longlisted The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore.

  2. koshkha
    20/01/2011 at 11:34 Permalink

    Hi Elkiedee – we seem to be in the majority by rating this better than the winner.

  3. elkiedee
    29/03/2011 at 14:20 Permalink

    It’s now longlisted for the Orange Prize, I’ll be very surprised if it’s not on the shortlist. I’ve read 5 of the other 19 books too, and while I liked them all (some even more than Room), I can’t guess so far which will be shortlist – I hope to fit in a couple more before the announcement on 12 April.

  4. elkiedee
    12/04/2011 at 12:02 Permalink

    Room is indeed on the Orange shortlist.

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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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