by Emma Donoghue
This is one of those books that was everywhere when it came out and I got put off by all the coverage. Fast forward a couple of years and I finally succumbed! As expected, it was an easy-to-read, gripping story, but it was more psychologically interesting than I had expected.
The story is that of Jack, beginning on his 5th birthday, and is narrated by him. I found his voice irritating at first but it grew on me and it was certainly believable. Jack lives with his Ma in their Room and seems to live a simple, happy life with her. But fairly quickly you see that all is not simple or happy. They never leave Room, they are locked in and a mysterious man comes at night to visit Ma, while Jack hides in Wardrobe.
“Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero. ‘Was I minus numbers?'”
This is clearly disturbing stuff, chilling even, and having the largely innocent narrator both adds to that and removes enough direct knowledge to make it readable. Had this been Ma’s account rather than Jack’s there would be more horrific details and negative emotions, whereas Jack just accepts the world his mother has built for him in their tiny space because he knows no different.
“How can TV be pictures of real things? I think about them all floating around in Outside Space outside the walls…all the shes and hes…there’s skyscrapers as well and cows and ships and trucks, it’s crammed out there, I count all the stuff that might crash into Room. I can’t breathe right.”
The idea has been well thought through. It is, psychologically speaking, completely believable. Reading it I couldn’t help but think of those shocking news reports about people like Josef Fritzl and that certainly added a chill factor, knowing that this wasn’t a completely unthinkable product of Donoghue’s imagination.
There were certain details that stood out for me, even though they’re not the disturbing bits. The mother’s attitude to nudity is super relaxed, but then they live in one room, after all. Her efforts to provide education and exercise for her son with only TV, a handful of books and grocery packaging are impressive. Jack and his mother do, to some extent, turn to religion to help them cope. She believes in God but I got the impression her faith wasn’t all that strong before Room as the details she has told Jack are a bit vague. It could be his age that has magic confused with miracles but the fact he thought Jesus was only ever a baby like in the picture they have on their wall (from a cereal packet) suggests a lack of fleshing out the faith beyond prayers.
It is quite hard to discuss this book fully without spoilers. I can see how this would make for an interesting book group read. There is a…turning point just over halfway through. When I saw it approaching I didn’t think it would work, narratively speaking, but it actually made the novel much richer, for me at least. Those of you who have read the book will hopefully understand what I am getting at! What did you think?
Published 2010 by Picador.
Source: I bought this secondhand.