Somewhat exhausting to read, Emma Donoghue’s Room (the first of her books that I’ve read but certainly not the last!) is the story of five-year-old Jack and his Ma, a closely knit little family unlike most others… for Jack’s father, who he calls “Old Nick,” has imprisoned Ma in an 11×11 shed that is the only world Jack has ever known, the titular Room.
The novel’s narrator is Jack, and the fact that Donoghue has given him such a believable and unique voice is one of the book’s real triumphs. Jack has known only the room, and only Ma, for his entire short life, and sometimes his words reflect that. They are mostly correct, and he knows vocabulary beyond his years like omnivore, but with the added layers of in-jokes and isolation, sometimes it almost seems like he’s speaking a different language. It’s another way to view, obliquely, the reality of the situation: we hear Ma’s words filtered through Jack’s perception. For him, Room is a comforting place, with toys made of broken eggshells, a track to run around the bed, and friends like Meltedy Spoon to keep him company. To Ma, however, looking up through Skylight only serves to remind her of the freedom that is just out of reach.
Old Nick is a truly vile character, and even though Jack doesn’t understand quite how bad he is, the reader cringes whenever he enters Room, or finding out that he has surrounded the ground underneath the shed with wire fencing, so that Ma can’t even dig her way out.
It’s not really a spoiler to say that the first half of the book takes place in Room, but the major concern is Ma and Jack’s adjustment to the outside world when they do eventually escape. It’s heartbreaking to see Jack reacting so intensely to simple things like rain, bright lights, and stairs. The main concern of the novel is rebuilding, even with the broken and imperfect (but still mostly loving) relationships that Ma had with her family before she was kidnapped. And even characters like Leo the “step grandpa,” whom Ma writes off at the beginning, have their own insight (maybe more so than even Ma and her own mother) into what Jack needs in order to grow past his ordeal. Ma herself is a wonderfully complicated character, damaged by her ordeal but resilient in her love for and desire to protect her son.
All in all I have never quite read a book like this one, and I was really impressed at the way in which Donoghue managed to pull everything together. While some moments might have seemed to stretch one’s disbelief, the human feeling at the heart of all of it was spot on.