One of the most gripping and powerfully told stories I’ve read this year. I laughed, I cried, I fell in love with Donoghue’s writting.
I’m always a little wary when I read a book that has had as much talk and praise about it as Emma Donoghue’s Room does. A book long listed for the Orange prize this year and short listed for The Man Booker Prize last year. Would the book live up to my expectations? Would I feel that I’ve missed something that all other readers seemed to have found? I have to admit that Room did not meet my expectations…it exceeded them.
The story starts on Jacks 5th birthday, he lives in ‘Room’, which really is just a 11×11 room that he shares with his Ma. We very quickly realize that Jack has never left this room, he was born here and he has no knowledge of the outside world. For him the small, confining space is his only world. The only glimpse he has had that anyone else exists is through the television, but his Ma has told him that everything in the TV is not real. They are just pictures. Make believe. From the very first words of the book a haunting and ominous presence leaks from the pages. Although we don’t know straight away the details of Jacks strange circumstances we are presided with an unnerving sense of unease.
Jack and his mother are being held captive by scary ‘Old Nick’ who comes in the night when Jack is sleeping in Wardrobe. Sometimes though, Jack who the entire story is narrated through, stays awake. And in the compelling and artistic way that Donoghue writes, Jack describes through his childish voice how he hears Bed creaking when Old Nick comes. If this sounds creepy now the feeling is nothing compared to what the author manages to convey, whilst retaining the innocence of youth in Jacks story telling. What is so precious about Jack is how intuitively he knows something is amiss, he counts all of his teeth when Old Nick is there, an OCD trait, yet he doesn’t quite grasp what is going on. He allows the readers to unveil the shocking truth and we become more and more empathetic for this loveable young boy.
I touched on the narration of the story and how Jack manages to tell the haunting story whilst ensuring that a youthful and endearing quality remains. It’s this dual purpose gained from Jacks narration that ensured my appreciation for just how well Donoghue had handled such a sensitive and shaky subject matter. On the one hand there is something disturbing and frightening about the fact that this haunting story is told by a small boy; that he is witnessing the rape of his mother every night, that he thinks inanimate objects like a wardrobe are his friends. It adds a creepy sense that subtly hits home to us just how morally wrong and damaging this story of captivity is. On the other hand the innocence of Jack also prevents this story from becoming too heavy, which off course could very easily happen in a tale like this.
The childishness of Jack is heartbreaking. The way he depicts his life in such an affectionate way, for example he tells us about ‘meltedy spoon’ and ‘egg snake’ that he and Ma made from broken egg shells. He describes them with fondness and refers to them as his friends. That Jack has had so little in the way of material possessions in his life, and yet he talks about his toys like friends and with so much joy deepens the story with unmistakable sadness. Room touches nerves and taps into emotions in a way that other writers have aspired to affect their readers but haven’t quite managed. And that this is written in such a childish manner and yet still packs such a blow just blew me away. Something you may think would come easily in a story about kidnapping, but I have read various novels and semi autobiographical books on this subject matter and honestly, sometimes I felt quite desensitized by the factual way the stories were told.
As the story wears on Jacks Ma begins to explain to him that there is more to the world than just him, her, and room. There is a whole world out there and all of the police cars, children, animals, hospitals, beaches he has seen on TV are actually real. She tells him that they shouldn’t be in this room but they are trapped by old Nick. What really tugged at my heartstrings was Jack’s reluctance to join the real world and his denial that they are a part of it. He desperately wants to cling onto the notion that only him and Ma exist and here the depiction of a mother and child relationship is magnificently displayed.
I don’t think anyone could read this story and not be touched by the frail lives of Ma and Jack and the fierce bonds that there circumstances create. The relationship between them is in one sense like an everyday mother and child relationshi yet it is magnified in this story of the captivity.
Room is a unique novel, it’s a story that has been touched upon before but not in this way and it’s this that made it for me such a spectacular and unforgettable novel. I’d highly recommend it too anyone wanting something a little different but also something moving that will get you thinking.
As I said earlier Room is up for the Orange prize for fiction. There will be a post up soon about all of the nominations, which I must confess I haven’t read yet. I wonder if they will be quite as powerful as Room?
Have you read Room? Did you feel as blown away by the story? I’d love to hear your thoughts.