5 Stars for Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room’

5 Stars for Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room’Room by Emma Donoghue
Also by this author: The Wonder, Akin
Published by HarperCollins Publishers on September 15th 2015
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 432

Synopsis from Goodreads: Now a Major Motion Picture starring Brie Larson and William H. Macy#1 International BestsellerWinner of the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction PrizeWinner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book (Canada and Caribbean region)Winner of the Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year.

To five-year-old-Jack, Room is the world. It’s where he was born. It’s where he and Ma eat and sleep and play and learn. There are endless wonders that let loose Jack’s imagination-the snake under Bed that he constructs out of eggshells; the coziness of Wardrobe beneath Ma’s clothes, where she tucks him in safely at night, in case Old Nick comes.
Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it’s the prison where she’s been held since she was nineteen-for seven long years. Through her fierce love for her son, she has created a life for him in that eleven-by-eleven-foot space. But Jack’s curiosity is building alongside her own desperation, and she knows that Room cannot contain either indefinitely . . .
Told in the inventive, funny, and poignant voice of Jack, Room is a celebration of resilience-and a powerful story of a mother and son whose love lets them survive the impossible.


My review:  

I have to confess I had never heard of Emma Donoghue prior to the Oscar buzz that surrounded the film ‘Room’ earlier this year.  Because I have a rule that I never watch a movie that is based on a book until I have actually read the book, I immediately purchased a copy of ‘Room’ and settled in to find out why this story was generating so much interest.

There are some books that are out of sight, out of mind as soon as you finish reading the last page, and then there are others that crawl into your brain and won’t let go. ‘Room’ is most definitely the latter of the two.  I finished reading it a week ago and literally cannot stop thinking about it.  It’s just that mind blowing.

‘Room’ is a 12’x12’ shed where ‘Ma’ and her son, Jack, are living when the novel opens.  Ma was abducted when she was 19 years old and has been held captive in this room for seven years.  Jack, who is five years old (so yes, a child of rape), was born in this room and has never been outside of it.  This one room is literally his whole world.

What makes this story so unforgettable is the unique point of view from which it is told.  Instead of having Ma tell her story, which is what I would have expected, five-year old Jack is actually the narrator.  Because we are seeing the story unfold from Jack’s innocent perspective, rather than being plunged immediately into a horrific tale of kidnapping, imprisonment, and rape, instead we are presented with a view of everyday life in what Jack refers to as ‘Room’ and a beautiful story about a mother’s love for her child.  The first half of the novel paints a vivid picture of the world within ‘Room’ that Ma has painstakingly created for Jack.  The reader can see that Ma has clearly poured her heart and soul into shielding Jack from the reality of their imprisonment and into making his life as close to normal as she possibly can, given the circumstances.  And she has succeeded.  Jack truly believes that ‘Room’ is all there is and that anything else he sees on television is just make believe.  He has no idea that he and his mother are being held captive and that terrible things have happened to his mother since before he was born.

Maintaining this illusion becomes more challenging for Ma though because the older Jack gets, the more curious he gets and the more challenging his questions become.  Finally realizing that she can no longer lie to her son, Ma decides that it’s time to tell Jack the truth about their situation and that most importantly, it’s time to take action and escape from their prison.

The second half of the novel focuses on life outside of ‘Room’.  Again, our focus is on Jack and so it’s as if we too are seeing the world for the first time as we watch him process and react to everyone and everything he encounters in his new environment.  Donoghue does a beautiful job in the second half of the novel of taking us through the range of emotions that one can only imagine a child in such a circumstance would be experiencing – the initial sensory overload, the nostalgia for the safety of the only home he had ever known, and finally the acceptance and embracing of the new environment and all it entails.

What I loved about ‘Room’:

The use of the child narrator – I thought this added such a fresh perspective to a story that otherwise could have easily read like a melodramatic Lifetime movie of the week.  Because we’re seeing what Jack sees, we’re insulated from many of the more traumatic and potentially graphic elements of the novel.  We’re vaguely aware that Ma is having difficulties coping with all that has happened to her and has to spend some time away from Jack, but we don’t really know much more than that.

The themes – Considering how horrific the actual events of this book are, I love that I have come away from ‘Room’ thinking mainly about beautiful concepts like strength, courage, love, resilience, and the unbreakable bond between a mother and child.

What initially bothered me about ‘Room’ but ended up being its strengths as well:

Jack’s language – At first I was bothered by Jack’s narrative voice.  While he usually sounded like what I would expect of a five-year old, sometimes very adult words would slip into his vocabulary and it felt unnatural.  I had to remind myself that while it might be unnatural for a normal five-year old to sound like Jack, Jack learned language solely from his mother and from television. He has had no one else to talk to for the first five years of his life so of course his language isn’t going to sound like a typical five-year old.  That was an unreasonable expectation on my part.

The novel’s structure – I have to confess that I almost gave up on ‘Room’ at about the 60 page mark.  I had had enough of Jack and Ma’s daily routine in ‘Room’.  It was becoming claustrophobic and tedious and I just really wanted out.  I forced myself to continue and then it hit me that the book was intentionally structured this way to make me feel what life in the room must be like for Ma.  Sure enough, just a few pages later, Ma decides it’s time to tell Jack the truth and begins laying out their escape plan.  And even with all of its challenges in terms of acclimating to a new environment, the second half of the novel reads like a breath of fresh air in comparison to the first half. So my advice to you if you’re reading it and start to struggle partway through, keep going. The payoff is huge!

Who would I recommend ‘Room’ to?

I can’t think of anyone that I wouldn’t recommend ‘Room’ to, but I would especially recommend it to anyone who loves novels with a huge psychological element.  Not only are you in Jack’s head seeing everything that he is going through emotionally, but you’ll also find that you’re constantly trying to imagine yourself in Ma’s place and wondering if you’d have the strength to do all that she does to protect her son.  Such a compelling read.

I may not have heard of Emma Donoghue prior to this year, but I definitely consider myself a fan of hers now and look forward to reading more of her novels.

And now that I’ve followed my rule and read the book, I can’t wait to finally watch the movie!






About Emma Donoghue

emma donoghue

Emma is the youngest of eight children of Frances and Denis Donoghue. She attended Catholic convent schools in Dublin, apart from one year in New York at the age of ten. In 1990 she earned a first-class honours BA in English and French from University College Dublin, and in 1997 a PhD (on the concept of friendship between men and women in eighteenth-century English fiction) from the University of Cambridge. Since the age of 23, Donoghue has earned her living as a full-time writer. After years of commuting between England, Ireland, and Canada, in 1998 she settled in London, Ontario, where she lives with her partner and their son and daughter.