Saturday, January 8, 2011

"Room" by Emma Donoghue

“Room” by Emma Donoghue (London, Picador, 2010)

My partner, who read this book first, didn’t want to reveal anything about it to me, when he suggested that I read it. He said he could not say anything at all, because it would spoil it. When I did read it, I kept wondering why it was that he had been so reluctant to say anything. The fact is, the book is either a complete puzzle to begin with, or it is not. In my case, it wasn't. I think it may have been more complex an experience if it were, but for me things were fairly clear from the first few pages. If you suspect that you might find it a complete puzzle – and would enjoy that experience, then stop reading NOW and go and get it. Because it is certainly one of the most worthwhile books I have read in a very long time.

This is the first book I have read with a child narrator. Jack, aged 6 has grown up in a single room, 11ft by 11ft. He was born in this room, which he and his mother have lived in for 7 years – imprisoned, and against her will. For Jack, however, this is the only world he has ever known. It is a friendly place. His reality is defined by objects which are named with capital letters – “Door”, “Rug”, “Table”, “Bed”. There is only one of them in his life. They each take on particular personality and are often spoken of with gender attached to them. For Jack, his world is small, but it is highly ordered, interesting, wonderful, exciting and safe.

His mother is an extremely sensible and utterly heroic figure, who is coping with the extreme situation as best she can. She has to manage the sexual regime of her captor who is the only link to the outside world. She does this, keeping him away entirely from her son, who is, obviously fathered by him. She creates and maintains the order of her own and her child’s world. The only thing which she does not control is the erratic behaviour of her captor.

The story is told entirely from the perspective of Jack. Language is used often as a 6 year old would use it. And the tiny world is described entirely from his perspective. The reader learns as he learns; experiences as he experiences. He is completely connected to his mother and the room he lives in, but entirely disconnected from the rest of the world. Indeed, the outside world simply does not exist. His mother is complicit in making this true for him. This is a decision she has made. The world of the television is explained as another sphere of reality. It is, effectively, unreality. So what is real, is what is inside the room. What is on the television, is not real.

Throughout the book, I kept on asking myself what kind of decisions (like this one), I would have made, if I were in the same situation. I came to the conclusion that that I would, most likely, have confused the situation immensely, by not allowing the child to think that what was on the television was unreal. I came to see that her decision was an extremely wise one. An extraordinarily practical and Existentialist solution to the problem. By making the television world an outside phenomenon, which did not affect them in any way, she was creating an extremely safe place for her child. And that, surely, is the very basis of good child-rearing. If the child does not feel safe. If he or she does not trust their immediate environment, then the damage in later life is likely to be profound

Another decision the mother makes, is to continue breastfeeding. When one first encounters it in the book, it is noteworthy – possibly even strange. But then so is the entire situation. The fact is, the mother, in that situation, makes choices (and sometimes, chooses not to). That she manages to maintain order and regimen in that situation is what is remarkable about her and it is that which establishes itself as the major theme of the book. It is not unlike other memoirs of solitary confinement, where the person seeks to control the space in which they find themselves. As a protest. As a signal that nothing and no-one can take away their essential being.

It becomes clear that the birth of the child, in those circumstances is her lifesaver. She has, in him, someone to relate to; someone to communicate with; someone to teach and someone from whom to learn. The raising of the child becomes an amazing, liberating project. And it is because of his absolute trust in her - and through her, trust in himself - that they find they can both achieve the seemingly impossible.

The story reads, in places, a bit like an allegory. It is a testimony to the success heroism of most parents - and single parents in particular. It is impossible to be a parent of small children and not place yourself in that scenario. And, as I say, I found myself wanting in several instances.

The captor’s appearances are necessarily shadowy, because the child has learned to stay hidden from him. It is thus from this position, seen through the imagination and narration of a child, that the reader encounters this controlling character. To the child, however,(“Old Nick” as his mother calls him) is the bringer of “Sundaytreats”. He makes the bed squeak. When he comes in, the cold outside air follows him in. The mother manages to keep the two worlds entirely separate – just as she does with the television. The captor, also, is part of unreality. It is unpredictable. It is dangerous. Her world, on the other hand, is real, trustworthy, reliable and warm.

She uses everything she has to create this sense of security for her child. She is not overly religious, but the sun and the moon, which pass over the skylight are described as the faces of God. After an incident which involves them being punished by the captor, Jack wonders :

““Why is he still punishing us?
Ma twists her mouth. “He thinks that we’re things that belong to him because Room does”.
“How come?”
“Because he made it.”
That’s weird. I thought Room just is. “Didn’t God make everything?”
Ma doesn’t say anything for a minute and then she rubs my neck.
“All the good stuff anyway”.”

Donoghue offers us in this extraordinary book, an insight into the mind of a 6 year old as he experiences the world - normality and abnormality; trust and fear; safety and extreme danger; comfort and unimaginable responsibility. The fact that these experiences are in a microcosm, makes no real difference to their intensity. They are newly-minted experiences. They are utterly vivid and full of the intensity of new life.

But more than that, Donoghue offers us a profound insight into the heroism of the captive. I was drawn not only to her practicality but also the remarkable depth of her inventiveness and love. Her determination - the way she drew on the fundamentals of her experience to pull them both through. As a character, she is far from flawless. But she is brave and ordinary and extraordinary.

You don’t need to be a parent to read this book (though if you are, the experience will be heightened tenfold!). You just need to be human. Because that is what the book is about – a celebration of the essence of humanity.


  1. When one starts reading this book one does not know what the book may be about...but then it all starts making sense. The book is written in the voice of the occupant of the ROOM...but until it is revealed what the ROOM is about it is all a mystery.
    I believe that this can be a true story of one being kidnapped and forced to succomb to the wishes of the kidnapper. A truly provacative story. All of my friends are reading it and also love it. You can't put the book down until you are finished reading it.

  2. I listened to the book on CD and found that hearing Jack's voice made the book very compelling. I don't know if I would have enjoyed it as much if I had read it.

  3. This is a really beautifully written fascinating book. It was almost too painful to read in parts and for the first time ever I wanted to read the end to help convince myself it was worth the sadness. It definitely was.
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  4. I've tried many times to put my thoughts into words for this review and have come up short every time. All I can say is it's a book you want to read. A gut wrenching, emotional, terrifying, addicting, hopeful, satisfying read that you won't be able to put down. Really.