Review of Room by Emma Donoghue

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This was short-listed for last year’s Man Booker prize and won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for 2010. I got hold of the book after hearing Donoghue’s interview for Radio 4’s Women’s Hour when she mentioned that she was inspired on hearing about five year old Felix in the Fritzl case.

roomJack is five and excited about his birthday. He lives with his Ma in Room, which has a locked door and a skylight, and measures eleven feet by eleven feet. He loves watching TV, and the cartoon characters he calls friends, but he knows what he sees on screen isn’t truly real – there’s only him, Ma and the things in Room. Until one day, Ma admits there’s a world outside…

This account could so easily have lingered on the grimness and sheer horror of their existence – but seen through the filter of a small boy, whose young mother has determined to shelter her son as much as possible from the worst aspects of their imprisonment, it becomes something else. Jack’s narrative gives us a fascinating insight in the ability of humankind to survive in a highly difficult situation.

Of course, given that the first person POV is in the head of a small child, the success of this book hinges on how effectively Donoghue managed to convey these fraught circumstances through Jack’s account. I spend a fair amount of my time with a six year old – and her portrayal is spot on. The occasional grammatical mistakes are completely appropriate without being annoying – as was the use of words like ‘hilarious’, which indicates an intelligent, precocious child with unlimited access to a fully engaged adult. Exactly the set-up these two characters experience, in fact…

The other big pitfall Donoghue had to negotiate – and one that I was personally particularly looking out for – was lapsing into any kind of sentimentality. Given the difficult subject matter, it would have been unforgivable to have poured a layer of treacle over this story in the shape of a cute little boy. But while Jack is undeniably remarkable, he has his edges. With his temper tantrums and neediness in ways that most five year olds have outgrown, he is certainly a handful. I found some of the later episodes in the book unbearably poignant as he attempts to cope with all that is happening around him.

The other major character that we see through Jack’s eyes, is Ma. Beautifully written, she defines herself throughout their captivity as Jack’s protector. His survival and wellbeing is her highest priority and she’ll do anything – anything at all to achieve this. Even being polite and obliging to the man holding her, whom Jack calls Old Nick. Again, Donoghue’s characterisation is pitch perfect – right down to the fact that she is constantly struggling with toothache due to a poor diet and no access to a dentist or any form of healthcare during two pregnancies. Her inventiveness in educating and entertaining Jack in their cramped conditions is inspiring without being cloying. Jack also recounts the times when Ma is Gone – having retreated into a fit of depression when she cannot stir herself from the bed.
I finished the book sometime last week and have already completed two other books, since. Normally, that means the previous book is starting to fade. Not so this time. I have a hunch that I’ll still be musing over Jack and Ma from time to time in years to come. There are only a handful of books in my life that have had that impact. They are not the sole reason why I read – I cannot imagine an existence without books in it – but these Golden Reads certainly are life-enhancing, thought provoking gems.
It’s a wonderful start to 2011 to discover another jewel to add to this elite collection…
10/10

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3 responses »

  1. Hi RFW,

    Yes… I know what you mean. I generally don’t don’t visit stories that deal with such difficult issues, these days, I’m an unashamed fan of ‘Brainfluff’ – hence my blog name.

    But, every so often, there has to be an exceptional exception. Thank you for the LIKE, by the way. I appreciate your taking the time to register your enjoyment.

  2. 2nd April. Just picked up the book to ascertain a detail for an essay I was writing – and reread it to the end. Just couldn’t put it down! This hardly EVER happens to me! It’s that good…

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