Room was a departure from my norm—wonderfully so. On the surface it appears to be a haunting tale of a mother and child’s hellish experience as hostages in an older man’s backyard shed (and yes, that is the premise), but what I found upon reading it was a moving story about the bond between a mother and child.
Emma Donoghue’s (Life Mask, Slammerkin) unconventional narrator is a five-year-old boy called Jack, who was born around two years into his mother’s imprisonment. He becomes her lifeline as her seven-year captivity progresses. Ma (the only name given for our other protagonist) creates a careful world-within-the-world for Jack, scheduling times for meals, baths, laundry, naps, television (their one link to the outside world), phys ed, games, and education. There’s a careful emphasis on staying as healthy as possible, since medical treatment is not an option for either of them. At night, Jack sleeps in the “Wardrobe”, hidden away safely by nine o’clock in case Old Nick (the name Jack gives to their captor) comes. While Jack isn’t a secret, Ma insists on keeping him hidden away from their jailer—a wish that is, for the most part, respected.
Jack’s skin has never seen the sun except through a bullet-proof skylight, his eyes have never had to adjust to see long distances, his ears have only experienced life in a sound-proofed cell, his stomach has subsisted mainly on small amounts of canned food and breast milk, and his only human contact and interaction has been with his mother.
Ma protects Jack by telling him that everything he sees on television isn’t real. When she does tell him about the outside world, the details are beyond his understanding. Ordinary life seen through Jack’s eyes is not ordinary at all, and what I, as a reader, so easily accept as reality was confronted by this young boy’s frank observations.
(What comes next comes with a spoiler alert! But really, I can’t review the other half of the novel without sharing that so…sorry/not sorry)
About halfway through the novel, Ma and Jack’s circumstances reach a dangerous low, and together they plan to escape. Jack is the crucial cog in his mother’s plan, and her desperation to see him safe and free regardless of the risk to them both (and the very real possibility of never seeing him again if he manages to escape) was one of the most poignant moments of the book. I didn’t expect to cry during such a nail-biting point in the novel, but…it happened, my friend, it happened.
Donoghue manages to strike the careful balance that shows the effects of Ma and Jack’s captivity without making them seem backwards or stunted in any way. She and Jack both hit their breaking points, but together they reach healing and catharsis with astounding courage.
Not only did I thoroughly enjoy this gripping read, I’ve recommended it to everyone that I’ve discussed it with, and now that includes you. Go read it. You’re welcome.
Room is now also a major-motion picture; we’ve reviewed that too. Check it out here.