Friday, 7 January 2011

Room by Emma Donoghue

This is the seventh novel by Emma Donoghue and the first time I’ve come across her. Having finished it this week, I find it hard to believe another novel could really live up to it this year. So early on in 2011, I am impressed, moved and cried a bit at the end which as I’ve said before, that says something.

 Living up to the publisher’s claim that it cannot be compared to another novel, including any comparisons drawn with this still quite young writer’s previous efforts, which of course I will be checking out, is outstanding.

This book, ‘inspired’ isn’t the right word, ‘came about’ after the Irish born writer,  now living in Canada, read about the case of  Josef Fritzl in Austria ;

the man who imprisoned his daughter for twenty four years in an underground dungeon where he repeatedly raped her...and left her and the many babies she gave birth to in extreme neglect. 

This book differs though in that the captor is not a family member and although it is darkly disturbing, Ma and Jack’s ‘Room’ has running water and light,  if Ma, at a mere 26, behaves herself that is.

What is so startlingly clever about this book is that the story is told mainly through the eyes of  a five year old, Jack, innocently and believably full of love for ‘Room’ demonstrated by the way he talks of  ‘Bed’, ‘Sink’, ‘Skylight’ as if they are old and trusted friends. A child that only knows reality as 11ft by 11ft and ‘Outside’ is make believe he sees on the small television ‘Old Nick’ the captor allows. I defy any parent to not ‘ache’ at this boy’s existence.

 Every now and then there is a glimmer of kindness when he allows them one treat on a Sunday and brings Jack a birthday present; however, this kindness is dispelled as Jack, while locked in a tiny wardrobe by his mother to protect him, counts the creaks of ‘Bed’ as his Ma unbeknown to him is raped, after 9pm each evening. There are days when Ma is 'gone', she is paralysed by depression and unable to move from the bed, the small boy just sits and waits for his mum to come back and continue the games.

It is darkly voyeuristic in places and not always comfortable reading but says so much about the human condition. Jack brings ‘Ma’ still only really stuck at 19, the age she was snatched,  back to life in her incarceration; keeping breath in her body is  the boy she spends every second ‘protecting’ by putting him into bed in 'Wardrobe', nurturing, teaching, singing to, telling stories and playing. Once a day, they climb as close to ‘Skylight’ as possible to scream loudly. Her violent incarceration is what Jack comes from, yet the mothering instinct to protect prevails in her.

The turning point for them is Jack’s fifth birthday where he becomes ‘Mr Five, the Superhero' and so begins the novel. The little boy craves to be four again and begs for ' waiting until he’s six’ but resigns himself  'scavely’ ( they sweetly make up new words as a bond through language)  to do what he has to do. His mother sounds harshly pragmatic but desperate as she tells him the story of ‘them’ and ‘Room’ and their only hope of escape. This is the part I found hard to read as she wrapped him tightly in the’Rug’. Jack plays dead  as he apologises in his tiny head for being scared and letting ‘wee’ out.

With no more spoilers, this book is an important comment on childhood, perceived ideas of child development, survivalist instinct, parenting and attachment, motherhood and what is ‘normality’. This novel is in most part an ‘Ode’ to motherhood and parenting and the fiercely protective need in love, which only when very basic herd needs are taken, can we truly recognise and see clearly.

This bond is symbolised partly by his Ma’s breasts, she feeds him on demand while imprisoned, she feels the judgement of the police officer when she nurses him on their release ( as if nursing a five year old is the most shocking part to her story!)  and gradually the ‘some’ as Jack calls it, is taken from him as he kisses the walls and roof of ‘Room’ goodbye.

We all have to step outside of our ‘womb’ whatever that is to us and this novel shows the strength of the mother in the most testing of conditions and is demonstrated again by the mother of ‘Ma’ being the connection to her and  Jack’s healing.  She slowly learns to understand the bond between her daughter and her grandson, something which the father can't do as he flinches at the sight of the boy; Jack to him is just a reminder of the violence his daughter was put through.

Towards the end of the novel, Ma says;

I read a book at college that said everyone should have a room of their own’

Jack at five years old questions this and after everything they’ve been through in 'Room', and his desire to be linked to his mother at all times, eventually replies with ‘cool’...a defining moment in their development.

This is a novel that cleverly uses language to portray the horror of this story gently through the eyes of a child and it certainly makes you look at things very differently by the end. A good read if uncomfortable at times, to merely call it a tale of kidnap does it an injustice. This review may feel like it has spoilers, but trust me, you will still be surprised.


  1. Whoa. The content sounds so intense. Great review. I don't know if I could handle it, especially knowing it is based on a true story.

  2. It's brilliantly and sensitively written. I loved it despite its uncomfortable moments, I like a book that kind of hangs around for a bit after I've finished it and makes me think lots...x