'ROOM' by Emma Donoghue - Review: Jack & Ma live in one room; how do they survive & what happens when Jack escapes?
A Few Facts
‘Room’ was written in 2010. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2010, it won the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize as well as being the 2011 winner of the TV Book Club.
November 2015 saw the film of ‘Room’ released. The book is partially based on the real experience of five-year-old Felix in the Fritzl case.
The back cover announces,
‘Jack is five. He lives in a single, locked room with his Ma.’
Inside the front cover we have a little more detail:
‘It’s Jack’s birthday, and he’s excited about turning five. He lives with his Ma in Room, which has a locked door and a skylight, and measures 11 feet by 11 feet. He loves watching TV, and the cartoon characters he calls friends, but he knows that nothing he sees on screen is truly real - only him, Ma and the things in Room. Until the day Ma admits that there’s a world outside…’
Ma is 26 and has lived in Room for seven years. She does all she can for her son Jack, providing him with physical and mental exercises and making sure he has a healthy diet and that he understands hygiene. She’s resourceful, brave and fiercely protective of Jack throughout their ordeal and beyond. Having to do everything herself, make decisions, organise and remain as positive as possible, she finds it hard to readjust to the world outside when the time comes, in itself a dangerous venture.
His version of life is cleverly portrayed, how he’s learnt about things from his mother and from TV but has no idea of life as it should be. When he finally sees the outside world, Jack becomes protective of his mother and, though intensely vulnerable and terrified, he bravely makes decisions, leading to her release from Room.
We realise as we cover the first few pages that this child has named objects in the room as though they were people; they are his friends too and are part of the only world he knows.
Jack and his mother fill their time with activities and games:
‘For Phys Ed Ma chooses Islands, that’s I stand on Bed and Ma puts the pillows and Rocker and chairs and Rug all folded up and Table and Trash in surprising places. I have to visit every island not twice. Rocker’s the trickiest, she’s always trying to catapult me down. Ma swims around being the Loch Ness Monster trying to eat my feet.’
These few sentences are an example of Jack’s perception and view on his new world after they escape:
‘In the world I notice persons are nearly always stressed and have no time..... In Room me and Ma had time for everything. I guess the time gets spread very thin like butter over all the world, the roads and houses and playgrounds and stores, so there’s only a little smear to time on each place, then everyone has to hurry on to the next bit.’
It’s endearing, yes, but shows us a Jack who is intelligent, observant and imaginative.
Old Nick, who imprisons them, is feared by both and is finally tricked into taking Jack out of Room, having been persuaded by Ma that Jack is dangerously ill. It’s then up to Jack to lead the authorities to his mother and set her free, a difficult task fraught with danger.
Jack's view of the world
Donoghue skilfully portrays Jack’s view of the world outside, a view formed by scant knowledge and therefore not as we would expect. He is a credible five year old, though a little odd due to his circumstances. The tale slides from funny to scary to literal whilst showing intelligent insight into the lives of others; a refreshing look at aspects of life we take for granted.
Jack's observation of relationships between parents and children is a stark contrast to his own relationship with his mother:
‘Also everywhere I’m looking at kids, adults mostly don’t seem to like them, not even the parents do. They call the kids gorgeous and so cute, they make the kids do the thing all over again so they can take a photo, but they don’t want to actually play with them, they’d rather drink coffee talking to other adults. Sometimes there’s a small kid crying and the Ma of it does’t even hear.’
His formerly restricted environment leads him to assume that a particular object will look the same wherever it is reproduced:
‘Driving home I see the playground but it’s all wrong, the swings are on the opposite side. “Oh, Jack, that’s a different one,” says Grandma. “There’s playgrounds in every town.” Lots of the world seems to be a repeat.’
Jack stays with his grandparents whilst his mother is undergoing tests and some treatment in hospital. He is frightened and bewildered without her:
‘“Ma, can you come get me tonight?”
“Not quite yet.”
“They’re still fiddling with my dosage, trying to figure out what I need.”
Me, she needs me. Can’t she figure that out?’
Grandma, Granddad & Psychiatrists
Grandma tries hard and gets lots right but some wrong! Her life having been abruptly turned upside down, after thinking her daughter had chosen to disappear, she shows sympathy and courage.
Granddad, who had moved to Australia, has a hard time adjusting to what’s happened; Jack calls him Steppa. Despite his difficulties with the situation, he shows great insight and understanding, he communicates on Jack’s level and is on his side. There is much humour and gentleness there.
Psychiatrists pay Ma and Jack much attention. It’s totally new territory for them and they make mistakes but Ma tries to put them right. She has a hard time keeping Jack away from the media but tries to introduce him to the unnerving city little by little.
Finally, Jack revisits Room to try to put that part of his life behind him. He has much to face in the future.
Style of Writing
In the clarity of the writing, we find sadness, humour, confusion, bemusement, anger and determination. Both main characters have to adjust to a wide open world full of noise, invaded by others, crammed with threatening objects and situations. At the same time they find people who are trying to help but often don’t understand; that comes with mistakes and patience on all sides.
The story gives us a sense of what it would be like to experience such a harrowing situation. I found it uplifting in that a mother managed to look after her son so well. I found it sad, suspenseful, funny and wondrous.
It is well-crafted in a refreshingly individual style, with defined characters with whom we can identify as they display elements of good and evil. It is poignant and eye-opening. There is resilience and love in abundance. It makes us stop to think about our own lives in contrast, whilst obtaining some insight into that which could happen to any one of us.
An Overpowering World Outside
This book deals with several subjects: the imprisonment of women by predators, the rôle of a mother, the importance of a child’s upbringing and how humans can adjust to a huge change of circumstance. It brings up the issues of freedom, relationships and others’ understanding and treatment of those who undergo such experiences. It forces us to understand what a disturbing place the world can be.
Donoghue treats all of these topics with compassion and a wonderful insight into what it could be like to endure another’s oppression and the subsequent results.
I did find the beginning a little hard-going, not due to the writing but because of the subject matter. However, I was so intrigued that I kept going and was glad that I did; I assure you it's worth overcoming the feelings of horror that one person could do such a thing to others. I think the reader is supposed to experience the feeling of claustrophobia that Ma and Jack have to go through.
Do take any opportunity to read this novel. I'm sure you won't be disappointed.
Notes on the Author
Emma Donoghue is Irish-Canadian and was born in Dublin in 1969. An award-winning writer, she now lives in Canada with her family.
‘Room’ is her seventh novel. She says that it ‘was inspired by… having kids; the locked room is a metaphor for the claustrophobic, tender bond of parenthood. She borrowed ‘observations, jokes, kid grammar and whole dialogues’ from her son Finn, who was five while she was writing it.
Room was also inspired by... ‘ancient folk motifs of walled-up virgins who give birth (e.g. Rapunzel), often to heroes (e.g. Danaë and Perseus) and by the Fritzl family’s escape from their dungeon in Austria.
Other titles by Emma Donoghue
Stir Fry (1994)
Life Mask (2004)
The Sealed Letter (2008)
Frog Music (2014)
She has also written Short Stories, Drama for stage and radio, Screenplays, Literary history and edited other works.
‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue, a novel published in English by Little, Brown and Company, Sep 2010, ISBN 978-0-316-09833-5, Cover artist - Cassia Beck (photography)