Room by Emma Donoghue is one book I won’t forget any time soon. Recommended to me by a good friend whose taste I trust, it wasn’t on my list but I decided to read/review it anyway. Though most of the reviews I’ve received from others are positive, I can’t decide my own opinions about the book.
When I say that it’s memorable, that’s not necessarily praise. Much of the book was disturbing and, excuse my juvenile expression, really gross. The novel is narrated by five-year-old Jack. He lives in captivity with his mother, known only to him (and to his readers) as Ma. Seven years ago, Ma was kidnapped and locked in an 11′ by 11′ shed that had been converted into an armored, soundproof living space. Her captor has repeatedly raped her for all seven years (Jack hears the sounds but cannot see what is happening from his sleeping space, and does not understand what is going on), and Jack is the product of that rape. Despite this, he and his mother share a very special, loving bond that hovers between friendship and a parent-child relationship. One understands that without Jack, his mother would have long ago gone insane.
Jack’s voice is unique in that it’s innocent and sweet, and lacks adult cynicism and experience. As someone who is not particularly fond of children, I found his narration difficult to swallow. His language is understandably frustrating, his child’s voice exacerbated by the fact that he has had no experience outside of Room. His ability to tell reality from unreality is flawed. They have a TV, but his mother has always taught him that anything outside of Room (other people, trees, malls, cars, the ocean, his grandparents, etc.) are not real–what he refers to as “in TV.” It takes the reader a while to adjust to his style of speaking. He misuses words and struggles with sentence structure. All that said, one cannot help but admire the author for her persistence and consistency in the narrator’s voice. It cannot have been easy to write.
The premise is an interesting one, and it was certainly fascinating the ways that Jack and his mother found to cope with their situation. They find creative ways to occupy their time, to store their things in such a small place, and keep themselves from going crazy. Jack’s Ma raised a very smart and mostly well-behaved child without help from anyone. She didn’t have pregnancy books, prenatal vitamins, doctor check-ups, or anyone to help her with delivery. She didn’t have a mother to give her advice on raising a child. Those things aside, their details of their daily routine gets old. It’s a relief in the middle when the great escape attempts begin and it gets a little more exciting. From that point on, Jack’s world is shaken up and severely disturbed, and his attempts at adjustment lend a little more interest to the novel.
The disturbing part comes through seeing all of this through Jack’s eyes. He thinks sleeping in a wardrobe, hearing creaking noises from his mother’s bed at night, and sucking on a rotten tooth that fell out of his mother’s mouth are all normal things. His acclimation to life outside of Room is slow and painful, and he is forced to deal with things like paparazzi and mental health patients at an unfortunately young age. Still, Donoghue is also adept at presenting the surprising adaptability of children, and Jack’s journey of growth and discovery in the world we take for granted is quite touching and very emotional.
While I wouldn’t call this novel “gripping,” or however the reviews describe it, I would say it’s a worthwhile read. After all, if disturbing were a reason to not read a book, then no one would ever read Lovecraft, or memoirs, or anything about history. It offers interesting perspective on life and the beautiful things we often overlook but should probably be grateful for. It’s a worthwhile read, but I’d check it out from the library instead of buying it.