Room / Emma Donoghue

In Room, a novel by Emma Donoghue, Jack is a five year old living in a single-room outbuilding with his mother. What makes this room special is the fact that his mother and he are being held captive there by “Old Nick”, ever since he kidnapped her when she was a college student. Even more telling, he also happens to be Jack’s father. To Jack, this room, containing a small kitchen, a wardrobe, a bed, and a TV set, is the real world as he knows it. To him, what he sees on that TV is a “make believe” world existing only in the box he witnesses it on.

Jack tells this story in first person, and Donoghue is to be commended for presenting it from the vantage point of a child this young. For any writer, it would be a challenge to capture such a tiny world as seen through his innocent eyes. To the author’s credit, she mostly succeeds in accurately recreating this harrowing situation using his voice alone. That said, there are times when she stumbles in the attempt. Jack occasionally comes across as being far wiser than his years, a child who does not always rings true on the page. Despite this, I was impressed with Donoghue’s skill of not only making Jack a believable character, but also a representation of the inner child that we all carry inside ourselves and can identify with.

For me, the most interesting part of the novel was the first section in which Jack and his “Ma” were held captive in the narrow confines of the room. And yet to my surprise, this portion was only forty percent of the book. The rest deals with the difficulty of their assimilation into the the greater world after his Ma concocts a daring escape using her young son as a supposedly dead corpse to lead to their rescue.

While I did not expect such a large portion of the book to deal with their life outside the room, Donoghue ably shows the difficulty for these former captives to find firm ground in a world that has much different rules than what governed life in that single room outbuilding for so many years. Jack, who has never been exposed to real life before, views its complexity much differently than does his Ma. But she too is left feeling overwhelmed by its immensity. To complicate this supposedly happy ending, Jack is left feeling conflicted by his mother’s growing independence, with a strong desire to return to the safety of the room where a population of two was all he needed to fill his life with a sense of security.

By presenting the novel from Jack’s viewpoint, Donoghue is able to soften the horror of the the events taking place. His innocent perspective records the joys of their secluded life together without any understanding of the greater picture. The story he presents is certainly poignant, but in the telling it represents a detailed account of unconquerable love overcoming the evil in the world. It is a novel that is sure to elicit the reader’s interest and sympathy from beginning to end.

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