Room by Emma Donoghue

Since reading is basically all that I’ve been doing for the past few days, let’s skip right to the good stuff.

I first saw Room several months ago at Barnes & Noble, and I admit that I was intrigued. But I didn’t have the money that day, and I let it fall from my head while I read a gazillion other books in it’s place. Every once in a while I would see the cover, or hear it mentioned, and I got the impression that it was getting to be a pretty big deal. I was further prompted when I saw that a librarian friend of mine had reviewed the book on his blog…. or did that happen after I’d already ordered the book?

Room is about what happens to a bright child when they are raised for five years in an 11×11 foot space by an incredible woman. The story is told from the point of view of Jack, to whom Room is the entire world. Seven years ago, his Ma was kidnapped by a man called Old Nick. For two years, Ma wasted away in her prison, watching television for hours a day and letting herself rot. Then, Jack was born, and he became Ma’s reason for being. She dedicated herself to raising him as normally as possible, something unimaginable to us.

To Jack, though, his world was completely normal. He was even a happy child, most of the time, and very normal. Ma made sure he got exercise, ate well, and was exposed to the outside world through books, TV, and Skylight. Still, Jack didn’t believe that there was a world outside the walls of Room. Everything was either “real,” something that he could touch, or “TV,” something that existed only on the television.

My friend (the same friend, because he’s the only person I know who’s actually read the book) said in his review that the book is almost like a play, separated into two acts. The first act shows the reader what life is like in Room. It’s fascinating, because you spend the entire time going, “How can they live like this and not go completely insane?” The part that really got to me was that they had a bookshelf with only nine books- four novels, and five picture books. Jack would ask Ma to read him the same book over. And over. And over. Ironically, Jack’s enthusiasm for the books they have has led to his becoming quite a skilled reader.

The second act can’t be explained without giving anything away, but know that it contains much more action, with more characters, and it gives you more to think about.

The entire book is told by Jack, who is five years old. The narration goes along as a young child would speak to you; considering that one of the things people critique when reviewing a book is “good writing,” that was an incredibly daring and risky move to take, on the part of Emma Donoghue! Yet she manages to make Jack’s language very readable and, quite honestly, after a few pages you don’t even notice it. You even begin to think in Jack-speak- or is that just me? (The same thing happens after I read Shakespeare.) Yet Jack still thinks about things, somehow deeper than a five year-old. This is probably a product of the education Ma’s been trying to give him in room. She always encouraged questions and thinking, and tried to provide him with everything she could inside of Room.

Ma was just as fascinating a character as Jack. For some reason, in my pre-conceptions of the book, I imagined Ma as sort of lower class, not entirely well-educated, but it turned out that that wasn’t true at all. Ma was nineteen when she was kidnapped- she was a freshman in college, and an honor roll student. She was from a normal middle-class family. She was perfectly average. Why is it that I (and my friend, interestingly) were inclined to think less of her before we even read the book? My personal theory is that it’s a form of blaming the victim, clearly something we don’t even realize we’re doing. Basically we’re thinking (subconsciously), “Well, if she had been higher class and smarter she wouldn’t have gotten kidnapped.” Obviously, this is completely illogical. It’s something our brains do to make us feel safer; it’s a defense mechanism. Knowing that Ma is educated and middle class makes her…. anybody.

If anyone else has a theory about this, feel free to share in the comments!

What this book is really about, and what it is constantly praised for, is the strength of a mother’s love and her will to find the best for her child, even in the worst circumstances. No one can say that Ma did a poor job raising Jack, just because they were stuck in Room. She gave him everything he knew to want.

As a final note, I found something really interesting just a little while ago- it’s a virtual tour of Room, which is really great to see after reading the book. Personally, I couldn’t envision an 11×11 space with a bed, a wardrobe, a TV, a table, a bathtub, and a stove. I was mentally stretching everything to fit my idea of a livable space. With this graphic you can explore the room, click through for more information about the book, and listen to Jack explain the various objects and pieces of furniture that shaped his life.

Published in: on May 17, 2011 at 8:09 pm  Comments (5)