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'Room' by Emma Donoghue - Review: Jack and Ma Live in One Room; How Do They Survive and What Happens When Jack Escapes?

Updated on September 15, 2018
annart profile image

I love to read & am enthusiastic about recommending any book I consider a great read. Fiction or non-fiction, it must be well written.

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.


By Katrina Afonso (Writers' Trust of Canada) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Katrina Afonso (Writers' Trust of Canada) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons | Source


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.’

Another extract

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.’

The Playground

Swinging bench
Swinging bench | Source
Swings | Source

Mother-Son relationship

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.”

“Why not?”

“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 and 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.


A Grandma & Granddad I loved to visit
A Grandma & Granddad I loved to visit | Source

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.


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.

An Overpowering World Outside

Massive Buildings and Unknown People
Massive Buildings and Unknown People | Source

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.

Josef Fritzl

The 'original' Old Nick
The 'original' Old Nick

Other titles by Emma Donoghue

Stir Fry (1994)

Hood (1995)

Slammerkin (2000)

Life Mask (2004)

Landing (2007)

The Sealed Letter (2008)

Room (2010)

Frog Music (2014)

She has also written Short Stories, Drama for stage and radio, Screenplays, Literary history and edited other works.

Emma Donoghue

By Katrina Afonso (Writers' Trust of Canada) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Katrina Afonso (Writers' Trust of Canada) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons | Source


‘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)

Reading Novels

Would you like to read this novel?

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Film Versions of Books

Have you seen the film 'Room'?

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© 2016 Ann Carr


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    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      16 months ago from SW England

      Yes, Doris, some of it is hard. I was amazed at the resilience and dedication of the mother, to be able to bring up her son and find a way to cope. Some of it is harrowing though but they did survive and come through it to something better, thank goodness.

      Thanks for leaving such an interesting comment and sharing your experience.


    • MizBejabbers profile image

      Doris James MizBejabbers 

      16 months ago from Beautiful South

      Ann, a couple of years ago a friend lent me this novel from her book club. I read about 30 pages and gave it back to her. When I told her that I just couldn't read any farther, she admitted that the same thing had happened to her. It was just too heartbreaking. I'm glad to have had the opportunity to read your marvelous review and find out what happened to the mother and son in the book. Even after reading the review, I don't believe I can go back and read it. Thanks for reviewing and giving me the opportunity to find out more about it.

    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      2 years ago from SW England

      Intense in some places, Claire, but not heavy. I found it harrowing in places but this is balanced by the humour and the lighter aspects. Hope you read it and enjoy it! Thanks for reading and leaving your input.


    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Sounds like an intense read! I will definitely give it a go.

    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      3 years ago from SW England

      Hi Glenis! Thanks for visiting; good to see you.

      I too prefer the 'feel good factor' reads but I didn't find this particularly disturbing or depressing - on the contrary, the upbeat attitude of the characters was inspiring. The subject is awful but this tale is about survival, hope and readjustment, as well as about other people's attitudes.

      I hope you give it a go but I understand your reluctance.

      Hope the weekend's going well and I wish you a happy week!


    • Glenis Rix profile image


      3 years ago from UK

      You write great hubs Ann. But I am reluctant to read this book, or see the film - though my enthusiasm for the cinema verges on the fanatical. Nowadays I find that I veer towards subject matter with a feel good factor (perhaps it's an age thing).

    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      4 years ago from SW England

      Frank: Thanks for the kind words. I'm glad I piqued your curiosity about this book; let me know what you think, if you get round to reading it.

      I appreciate the visit, as always.


    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 

      4 years ago from Shelton

      your well written review has me wanting to peek into this book... maybe I will enjoy it.. thank you for sharing annart :) bless you

    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      4 years ago from SW England

      Thanks, Mike. I try to add a few extra photos to back up or to contrast the themes and always add info regarding the author, if I can. Not always easy to make it tempting without giving away too much; this had a few drafts before it was published!

      Your support is always much appreciated.


    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      4 years ago from SW England

      Thank you, Dora. I hope you get to read it; it's worth it and brings up some interesting concepts.

      Good to see you today.


    • mckbirdbks profile image


      4 years ago from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas

      Hello Ann. That is quite a book review. What a terrifying concept. You made the book sound like a must red. You put a great deal of effort into your presentation. Well done.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      4 years ago from The Caribbean

      Haven't seen the movie or read the book, but I would like to. Thanks for this appealing review. It's a great help that you record your thoughts as you began the book, but continued; now I know that it is worth enduring the negative feelings for the better ones in store. Good review!

    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      4 years ago from SW England

      You're welcome, Alicia. Thanks for reading and I hope you read the story. Despite the dark subject it is superbly written and doesn't depress too much.


    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      4 years ago from SW England

      Thanks, Ruby. I hope you do read it and I'd be interested to see what you think of it. Glad I piqued your curiosity!


    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      4 years ago from SW England

      Thanks, Flourish. You're welcome; let me know what you think of it, please. Hope you enjoy it (despite the heavy subject, the writing has a light touch).


    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      4 years ago from SW England

      Thank you, Susie Jane. Do let me know what you think, if you read it.


    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This sounds like an intriguing story. I've never heard of it before. Thank you for the review and for introducing me to the writer.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      4 years ago from Southern Illinois

      I absolutely want to read the book, and I would love to see the film. I can't imagine surviving a life in one room. Her love for her son must have been so intense that nothing could stop her desire for freedom. Great book review Ann.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image


      4 years ago from USA

      I plan to read this based on your review. I always appreciate good books. Thanks for the recommendation.

    • Susie Jane profile image

      Susie Jane 

      4 years ago from London

      This review has me intrigued. I want to read the book now.

    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      4 years ago from SW England

      MizBejabbers: I can understand that, in fact I did find it a bit hard going to start with but I was so intrigued that I kept going and I'm glad I did. Perhaps I should say that in the review - in fact, I'll add that as it's obviously not just me!

      Thanks for reading this and for your kind comments.


    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      4 years ago from SW England

      Thanks, bill, that's very kind. Our respect is mutual.

      I approached the book with apprehension as it was not my choice but another book club member's. I was pleasantly surprised. It opened up a completely different view of life and the world and made me appreciate my upbringing and my life as it is. That's why book club is so good - that, and a good evening's discussion about all sorts of things!

      Hope you enjoy it if you do get round to reading it.

      Hope you had a great weekend; ours is just coming to an end and it's a busy week ahead - the grandchildren are on half-term!!


    • MizBejabbers profile image

      Doris James MizBejabbers 

      4 years ago from Beautiful South

      Ann, I couldn't take your poll because there was no "I tried to read it but I couldn't." A friend of mine lent me the book as she sometimes does. I got no more than 40 pages into it, but it was just too intense. The feelings that I had to put into reading the book were more than I could handle. I was overwhelmed. Maybe if I had skipped to the part where they escaped, I would have been able to read it. It is a very powerful book, and I couldn't read it impersonally. You've done a great review. My hat's off to you.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Ann, thanks for the review. I normally don't steer too far from my mystery genre, but I'll give this a try since you think so highly of it. Yes, I respect you that much. :)

      Happy Sunday, my friend.


    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      4 years ago from SW England

      Yes, Jackie, it is a great story. I'll amend the poll for you - should've thought of that one!

      Thanks for the comment; much appreciated.


    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      4 years ago from SW England

      manatita: Thank you for your kind comment.

      I am writing all sorts of things, including some possibilities for novels and/or memoirs; I've been writing since I was about 8!

      I've never met Emma Donoghue but find her writing eminently readable.


    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 

      4 years ago from the beautiful south

      Voted in first poll but no place in second one with my answer being "No I have not seen the film but I would love to!" Sounds like a great story.

    • manatita44 profile image


      4 years ago from london

      You write so well, my Sweet, and some subject matters you seem to excel in. This is obviously one of them. I know, like most people, of this sad tale. Still, it is so warm and vibrant in your review. Amazing!

      I think it is because you have such a sweet and natural flow! Doris Dancy is like this too, although she is too busy with her books to be here now.

      Are you writing books? You should. Yes, yes ...I remember, all these other chores ....

      "My Supreme, my Supreme, my Supreme give me forty eight hours a day .....-Sri Chinmoy. A serious poem, but I'm joking.

      I like your review. Do you know or have you met her? She'd be proud of you. Much Love, Ann.

    • annart profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carr 

      4 years ago from SW England

      Thanks, Eric, for your kind comment. I understand that; it was a book I wouldn't normally have chosen but I belong to a book club and it was our set book a few months back. It's a good way to read books out of one's usual preference. This one made me think without being too heavy.


    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Your writing is always stellar. I have a bit of trouble with the subject matter here as this is not my genre of any preference.


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