Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Emma Donoghue’s Room
June 21, 2011, 2:08 pm
Filed under: Book Reviews, Literary Fiction | Tags: , , , , , ,

Emma Donoghue’s Room is interesting for the way it tackles, as Jennifer over at Soy Chai Bookshelf writes, a topical subject, and for the ways in which it avoids fully addressing that subject. Donoghue’s novel is about the captivity of a mother and her son, Jack, who has no concept of a world beyond the confines of the converted garden shed he lives in. By telling the story from Jack’s point of view Donoghue mostly manages to avoid addressing their captivity head-on; as the Reading Ape wrote in his post summing up the 2011 Tournament of Books, Room avoids “the full force of adult consciousness” by presenting itself in the voice of a five-year-old.

Had Donoghue opted to tell the story from the mother’s point of view, though, it wouldn’t be a better book, simply a different one. Many of the horrors of the living situation explored here are amplified by Jack’s inability to view them as problems. To Jack, the room he lives in with his mother is the whole world, a place in which everything has a name (Bed, Skylight), in which anything can be a toy (eggs are threaded together and turned into a snake), and in which everything is clear and in its proper place. The joy Jack takes in things like preparing lunch is evident, but through those things Jack treats so matter-of-factly Donoghue is able to suggest the horrors of his mother’s life:

It’s 12:13, so it can be lunch. My favorite bit of the prayer is the daily bread. I’m the boss of play but Ma’s the boss of meals, like she doesn’t let us have cereal for breakfast and lunch and dinner in case we’d get sick and anyway that would use it up too fast. When I was zero and one, Ma used to chop and chew up my food for me, but then I got all my twenty teeth and I can gnash up anything. This lunch is tuna on crackers, my job is to roll back the lid of the can because Ma’s wrist can’t manage it.

We don’t know what happened to his mother’s wrist, what is wrong with it, but that Jack mentions it – that is enough to send the reader’s mind spinning off the possibilities suggested by that last sentence of the passage. Donoghue gestures at a worldview Jack’s mother has created, one centered on some Christian belief system, with the “daily bread.” She also suggests in other ways what sort of world Jack’s mother has made for him: the scheduling, the assignment of jobs, to keep their lives moving forward as much as is possible. What she does, in some sense, is to leave the mother’s thoughts vague enough that the reader is placed in the position of giving her character more life, of trying to imagine more fully how and why Jack’s mother creates the world that she does for him.

“Old Nick,” their captor, makes brief appearances in the novel, but he is more present as someone Jack’s mother doesn’t talk about “in case he gets realer.” What Donoghue does so well in this novel is to show, via the scattershot memories and observations of a five-year-old, what makes up the people around him. When Jack’s mother makes a request for some change to their accommodations Old Nick responds, “Aboveground, natural light, central air, it’s a cut above some places, I can tell you.” And, my God – the suggestion here, that he views himself as somehow reducing the horror of their circumstances, of giving them a comfortable and protected existence rather than the non-lives the mother and son live out in a 10-by-10 garden shed, makes for one of the novel’s most chilling moments. It’s not about the specifics of their room – that they have a skylight, for instance – so much as it is that Jack has hit his fifth year with no understanding of a larger world, with no idea that there are things outside of their room and those things don’t exist “in TV” but in the real world.

Donoghue sets Jack and his mother free, as she must to give this novel any arc, and again: to see this through Jack’s eyes does more to encourage the reader to explore the ways he and his mother have been formed than seeing it through his mother’s eyes would. This isn’t to say that The Reading Ape’s point about the ways Donoghue avoids addressing the “big questions” here isn’t valid, but rather to say that the novel wouldn’t gain anything if Donoghue had told this story from an adult’s perspective. In the second half of the novel she gestures at the mother’s point of view, as when Jack watches her give an interview to an Oprah figure. These passages, though, feel almost forced for the ways Donoghue shows, too explicitly, what the mother feels and thinks. The horrors of that room may be quieter when they’re told through Jack’s voice, but they’re more affecting. It’s Jack’s reluctance to leave Room and enter the “outerspace” that is the world that shows what the room has done to them, not his mother’s facing up to the questions about their captivity and Jack’s development that she must, once they escape.

Given the lackluster nature of those passages parroting the voice of Jack’s mother, Donoghue made a wise decision to tell this story from Jack’s view. By doing so she avoids having to address their captivity directly, herself, but leaves it to the reader to parse Jack’s vision of the world. After he’s freed from Room, once he’s in the world, Jack’s life doesn’t improve, in his mind, so much as it changes, radically and often negatively. As he says, “In Room we knowed what everything was called but in the world there’s so much, persons don’t even know the names.” That longing for a known world, for a space complete in and of itself, for captivity, colors everything Jack writes in Room, and at end this is the truer horror that Donoghue tries to explore.



Great review. I love your point that the horrors of the Room were quieter but more affecting when you heard them from Jack’s point of view instead of hearing his Ma give an interview to a daytime TV talk show host. Having the story told from Jack’s point of view meant that the reader had to do more work to fill in the gaps of what was happening, taking only the clues that Jack mentioned. I think this is what made the story so effective, even if Jack’s voice did bug me at times

Comment by Alley

This was a really fantastic review, and I’ve read a ton of them. The problem is, I just don’t want to read this book. At all. Not because it’s too disturbing or anything like that. I’m just digging in my heels. Doesn’t seem like something I’d enjoy, particularly as there seem to be quite a few novels like this out there (particularly from British writers, oddly enough) in a child’s voice blah blah, and I’m kind of done with it for now.

Though your review tells me one of these days, maybe in a few years, I will have to pick it up.

Comment by jenn aka the picky girl

I didn’t have any interest in this book for the longest time. I’m still not sure why I wound up reading it, but I finished in a day – something went right there. I’m usually not a fan of novels in a child’s voice either, and I think that’s what turned me off of this…but Donoghue does it really well.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

To respond to your comment on my review, I didn’t think that the room was human at all – except in comparison to its real-life inspiration (underground, ceilings so low one child couldn’t walk properly, etc.). Having no concept of not only the outside but a window is just horrifying.

I agree with your point about Jack’s voice being as powerful as an adult’s would be just in a different way – that’s exactly the point. I also agree Alley (Red, is that you?!) that Jack’s voice got a bit irritating, especially at the beginning when it was just day to day same thing.

Thanks for the link!

Comment by Jennifer Maurer

Okay, I see more what you mean by that now. I never looked into the real cases that inspired Donoghue’s novel, and you’re right that these other rooms – which block out so completely the outside world, even to light – are…well..worse than what Donoghue deals with here, in terms of physical circumstances.

I was surprised I didn’t get irritated by Jack’s voice. I think I happened to read this on the right day…there are so many other novels that have these super-stylized voices that I just can’t stand. When I started this I was expecting to end up thinking along the Ape’s lines, that this story should have been told through the mother’s voice.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

What an intelligent review, thanks. I particularly appreciate your insight that ‘That longing for a known world, for a space complete in and of itself, for captivity… is the truer horror.’

Comment by emmadonoghue

[…] “B” is for Burglar (06/17/11) Azar Nafisi – Reading Lolita in Tehran (06/14/11) Emma Donoghue – Room (06/11/11) Vladimir Nabokov – The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (06/11/11) Katie Atkinson […]

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[…] Room – Emma Donoghue’s Room is maybe a riskier selection than those above, but it still seems pretty “hip” to me to be carrying this book around. Plus, I am pretty sure it’s made its way into airport bookstores. The narration may turn some people off, but Donoghue does an amazing job with her child narrator, and the viewpoint adds much to the book – many moments are especially affecting because we’re coming at them from the view of a child who doesn’t fully understand his world. Room is also a short read with high potential for sucking readers in as they try to find out what will happen to Jack and his mom?!! Read the review […]

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[…] potential for sucking readers in as they try to find out what will happen to Jack and his mom?!! Read the review – […]

Pingback by Top Ten Books for Reluctant Readers « Fat Books & Thin Women

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