Room by Emma DonoghueStanding out in the Booker Prize shortlist, Room is a softly told story that wrestles with the unbearable. Written in the voice of a five-year-old boy named Jack, it’s the story of a beloved son and his mother. It’s also the story of something very nasty, the stuff of modern nightmares and front page news articles. Emma Donoghue, an acclaimed novelist and historian, has created characters based on the infamous cases of Natascha Kampusch and Josef Fritz, stories that have horrified and fascinated us. Room takes us in to the domestic universe a Mother creates out of unbearable smallness, and then outside of it to a new set of wonders and terrors. It is the story of what happens when the tiny world of Jack and his Ma gets opened up to the wider world, suggesting a life of rooms stacked inside each other like Russian dolls.
Lifelong prisoner Jack wakes on his fifth birthday in Room. That’s where he lives with his Ma, and Table, Wardrobe, their daily routine, special treats, and his friends in Television. The reader knows that something grim is at work, but Jack’s voice is bright and engaging. Room, a tiny cork-lined box with only basic amenities, is Jack’s whole world. His mother has worked, we begin to realise, ferociously hard to provide her son with an education, play, and a fully-functioning logical world with rules and boundaries. But sometimes Ma “goes away,” falling into depressive spells where she cannot move from Bed.
Donoghue conveys the cosy tedium of their domestic routine while closing in on the tense, nauseating truth. Their captor, a man Jack calls Old Nick, is portrayed in brief, angry lines. Jack is kept hidden from him, Wardrobe’s door shut tight on the rape scenes. In one of Room’s most chilling sequences, the child counts the rocking of the bed as he waits for Old Nick to leave his Ma alone. Ma’s depression and Old Nick’s intrusions are inconvenient, but Jack is sustained by the comfort of play, his internal monologue not betraying any sense of trauma with the small amount of presence he gets to make up a cohesive world.
A world that Ma destroys in one afternoon. She tells him the truth behind their life in Room, something Jack is understandably confused and distressed by. Soon, too soon for a muddled five-year-old mind, she’s planning their escape. The book touches just briefly on the ambivalence of the maternal relationship in these unendurable circumstances. This is the first of the book’s missteps in credibility, as it is hard to fathom why the sudden pressure to leave Room has reached Ma. It’s compounded by the unlikely choice of escape -- essentially, putting Jack into their captor’s hands, for this protective and caring mother to trust that her child will free her. Perhaps the beauty of the metaphor is meant to overcome the improbability of plot twist.
How do you write about abduction and imprisonment, torture and violence, nastiness that is uncomfortably close to truth, without being exploitative? Donoghue’s narrator has extraordinary resilience, and a useful innocence. As they begin to piece together a life away from their prison, Jack’s voice becomes too gimmicky. From his mute observation of his mother’s rape, he switches into a pint-size observational comic. Too many jokes pile up, riffing on his otherworldly point of view. He notes that there are many things outside, yet there are homeless people with none. Borrowing his mother’s cynicism, he observes “idiots buying lottery tickets” and he is just as critical of the adults close to him in the Outside.
Everyone Outside is more or less an idiot, this wide-eyed sceptic discovers. Journalists are parasitical; mental health workers well-meaning but ineffective; middle class families are not emotional literate to deal with such trauma; in the second half of Room, the clichés build up relentlessly. They throw away useful things, they compare Ma’s experience to the peaceful life of a monastery, they fail to understand Ma in the uncanny way Jack does.
We see Ma through the eyes of her child, but Jack’s ability to assess her mental state while monitoring his own is a bit too neat. “Ma’s mad now,” he observes, but it doesn’t disturb his own equilibrium, or his ability to take in the rest of the scene. Kids are resilient, especially with a parent’s love, and it’s that idea which bolsters Room -- their psychologist describes Jack as “plastic” just to make it official -- but Jack’s emotional literacy is so mature, it clashes with his more realistic displays of fear and curiosity. This is where the book bogs down in its own sentimentality, becoming too wedded to its central mother and child versus the World motif to sustain credibility.
The condemnation of the media treatment of Ma and Jack’s release is so heavy-handed that it overshadows the book’s climax. In an overwrought and underwritten scene, a proxy Oprah interviews Ma. Donoghue doesn’t try to conceal her disgust at the leeching aspect of the tell-all misery media product. Additionally, the conceit that “the paper people” would dub Jack “The Little Prince” is so smug and unrealistic that it undermines the point being made. By the time the narrative labours past this point to the unsettling but hardly unsurprising revelation that Jack wishes to return to Room, the power of his feelings are diluted by the overall absence of subtlety.
Overall, Jack emerges as too perfect a narrative voice, a kitschifed child wonder. The book leaves us with him and Ma in a home of their own, a content child with his name on his bedroom door. It would be more interesting to meet up with him again in ten years time, typically when post-traumatic stress disorders begin to manifest, and discover how he deals with his conflicting worlds then. Instead, the sustained childlike world view acts like a hermetic seal on their experience. For all of Donoghue’s skill at creating the voice of Jack to tell this story, it seems to begrudge its readers their curiosity at his experience. The book has too much sentiment to allow his singular expression come alive, and the result is little more than an experience of middlebrow squick.
Room by Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown and Company