This was a novel that I thought I would never read. When I heard all the hype and the fuss about it last year, I found myself entirely mistrustful of the scenario, with its sordid echoes of Josef Fritzl and all the other maniacs out there who do mind-bendingly despicable things to the people they love. I was afraid that it was the literary equivalent of Tom Hanks winning the Oscar for Forrest Gump, a novel that went to the dark places in order to be sensational and then sentimental about them.

But I was given a copy of the book at Christmas and when I was going to call on the friend who gave it to me, I thought it would be nice to have at least made a start on it. She had told me she wanted an honest review and didn’t mind whether I loved it or hated it – she was curious to know herself what I thought. It’s pretty much impossible for me to talk about this book without giving away what happens over its course; I won’t call them spoilers because a) so much is known about this book already and b) you can’t really read this for plot. But if you’re planning on reading it and want it to be a surprise, then you should be warned.

The book opens in the world of young Jack who is celebrating his fifth birthday with his mother, known as Ma. Their world is a confined one, a twelve by twelve foot space every inch of which is intimately known to Jack and personalised. Wardrobe, where he sleeps at night, Bed, Plant, down to the small objects like Meltedy Spoon are all anthropomorphised to some degree, named and addressed like people, loved like family members. There’s a television, which Jack’s mother is as hot as any middle-class mum to ration, and for the rest of their entertainment, Ma has been remarkably resourceful in finding games to play out of the daily domestic chores and their limited materials. Jack is happy and contented with his world, but it’s evident that Ma has the tougher deal. She’s suffering from severe dental decay and clearly in thrall to Old Nick, the man Jack never sees, but whom he understands to bring the food they need and to visit his mother at night.

This first part is narrated by Jack, in his five-year-old voice, and at first I did not think I could put up with it. Jack is clearly precocious in some ways, but the linguistic errors he makes are not ones usually associated with five year olds. ‘What that man doing’ is the sort of question he might ask, which fell all wrong on my ears as auxiliary verbs are not usually the missing elements of small children’s speech, as basic grammar is quickly mastered. But Emma Donoghue goes to some pains to make this section as easy to read as possible, and I admired the inventiveness with which she had imagined their incarceration. The restraint with which she depicts Jack’s mother and the adult sufferings and frustrations she has to undergo whilst doing her best to mother in these conditions felt very powerful.

But then the book took off for me in the second half, in which Jack and his Ma make it back out into the world. Just to show how subjective all reading is, I recently came across an article that named this novel as one of the ten biggest let-downs in terms of endings, and declared the second half to be more appropriate to a child development manual. I was astonished, given that I’d just read it and found the second part so compulsive that I really could not put the book down (and that doesn’t often happen these days). What’s fascinating (for me at least) in this second part is the way that the freedom of the world, so longed for by Jack’s mother, seems almost harsher and crueller at times than the captivity they’ve been forced to survive. Ma returns to parents who’ve had seven years to grieve for her, and to a media that want to turn her case into a circus, and she succumbs to the nervous reaction that is the inevitable consequence of being brave beyond reason for longer than possible. And of course, Jack struggles dreadfully to adapt.

The brilliance of this book for me is the way that Emma Donoghue so insightfully turns the situation on its head. Captivity was fun for Jack. It was so safe, so sufficient. With his mother all to himself and life arranged in pleasing (to him) routines, he could never miss what he’d never known (and Ma has told him that what he sees on television is all fantasy). Once he’s out in the world, he doesn’t like it. Everyone who’s been around toddlers knows how easily they get into trouble; well Jack is like a toddler cubed. The world is full of menaces and peculiarities (like bumble bees and paying for things in shops) that he’s never had to encounter before. An extreme kind of separation from his mother is forced upon him, with its attendant anxieties.

What I got out of the book in the end was not insight I didn’t want into the horrors some people have to endure at the hands of lunatics, but a more generalised truth: that children need and love the reduced microcosm they live in when young, the family ideology and its all-encompassing explanations, the little set routines. But when we become adults, that reduced world is what makes us ill and ill at ease. We have to break out and break away or risk claustrophobia and suffocation. But maybe there is a lingering romance with the conditions of childhood, and that is what Emma Donoghue taps into in that first section, the heroic mother who gives her all and saves her sanity by creating a room-sized world, in which she nourishes the extreme innocence of the child who is content within it. But I tell you, I couldn’t help but root for them to get out, and was thankful for the happy ending that the author slowly and cautiously draws them towards.


26 thoughts on “Room

  1. I am a big fan of Donoghue’s books but I was nervous about this one due to the hype and how different it is from her previous books. I was astounded by how powerful Room turned out to be.

    • Lola, this was the first of her books I’d read, and I’m really glad to think that you can recommend the others – and that they’re very different. I agree, I did find this very powerful.

  2. I read this when it first came out and like you found the child’s voice really hard to take. I absolutely agree that the second half is better, and more convincing, but my abiding memory is that I didn’t really enjoy the novel and I think that’s because I did feel the first half was a bit flawed.

    • harriet, I’m relieved that you felt the same way about the child’s voice. I think I preferred the second section because his speech was far less noticeable, given that suddenly there were all these other characters involved. I can quite understand that your feelings for the first half remain the dominant memory.

  3. I tried this several times and was put off by Jack as a narrator in that first part and the linguisitic errors–that’s probably really shallow of me but I just couldn’t get past it–it grated awfully on my ears. It sounds like there are rewards however, for sticking it out, so maybe I should make another attempt.

    • Danielle, seriously, if you want to give it another go, pick it up from the part where Ma decides they have to break out of the Room. You’ve probably pretty much reached that anyway! As you can see both Harriet and I didn’t like the child’s voice and as two ex-university lecturers we don’t make too shallow a company for you to keep! 🙂 But also, there are lots and lots of books out there, many of which you will probably enjoy more than this one. Don’t try again unless you really feel you want to – life is short.

  4. Seems like this is a book people have tended to love or hate. I’ve not read Donoghue yet but I know lots of people really like her work. She’s on my forever growing, I’ll get to her one of these days lists.

    • ha, you should see my I’ll-get-to-that-author list. It’s down the stairs and out the door by now. If only there were more time in the day for reading!

  5. This does sound interesting, but you know, although I’ve seen the cover about a bit, I had no idea what it was about or that it was a big success book or controversial. Perhaps if a copy falls in my way I’ll give it a go, now you’ve alerted me to its existence. Perhaps I should get out more – of my reading room and garden! Speaking of rooms, I’ve just finished Ali Smith’s ‘There But For The’, a wonderful book – just as your review promised!

    • Bookboxed – I loved the analysis of Ali’s book that you sent me – thought it was excellent and have plenty to say in response. At the moment, though, Mister Litlove is down with the throat bug our son had, and somehow the extra work involved is eating up all my time. I will get back to you very soon. Room is a curious book, and not something I would rush to recommend to any reader. But I’d be very interested in what you thought of it if it did turn up in your library.

      • I hope Mister Litlove is soon well and that you are not next to catch it. I know about that extra work when someone is not well – amazing how much it turns out to be,

  6. This was a fabulous review of a book I’m not likely to read. Your description of the contrast between the two halves of the book was fascinating. I agree that early childhood speech has to follow the rules of language development or it just rings hollow and makes the child unconvincing. It takes a special gift. Nevertheless, it sounds like this author astutely grasped the importance of a little, predictable world for children who do anthropomorphize everything, and how confusing things get as the world gets bigger.

    • Squirrel! It’s lovely to have you visit and I will come and see you very soon (see comment to Bookboxed above – life stressful). What you say is absolutely spot on. The language errors felt all wrong to me. Children still mix up pronounciation, still make syntactical errors and struggle with wrong words and long sentences, but grammar they pretty much get instincively. I really appreciated the creation of the small world, though and I felt that gave me a truth I’d never fully realised before.

  7. Despite all the hype, this book didn’t work for me, for reasons you and some commenters mentioned. It’s the 5 yr-old’s voice… a bit contrived and manipulative. You’re right in pointing out those errors should not have been that of a young child’s, but an ESL learner’s. (as I’ve first hand exp. and in teaching ESL) Anyway, grammar aside, it’s the second part that I felt even more disappointed. But I really appreciate your review, litlove, honest and illuminating, esp. the last paragraph. And may I offer suggestions of two films to complement: Part 1: Life Is Beautiful, Part 2: Nell. For me, the films work much better. 😉

    • Arti, this must be one of the nicest dissenting comments I’ve ever had! 🙂 I completely agree, though – ESL errors all the way, not children’s ones. And thank you so much for your film recommendations; I do appreciate them so!

  8. I bought it when it came out and then there was such a hype, just thinking of redaing it made me so tired. I started her fairy tale retellings insetad and thought she was a very lyrical writer. The hype has died down somehwat and yours is one of the first post-hype reviews and I must say, I think I’d like it.
    I suppose the first part would be easier to read for me, being a non-native speaker but I can see how it would be annoying in French or German.
    The second half sounds quite good and I’m glad now, I’ve got it already.

    • Caroline, yes, that’s so true – I’ve read French novels that native French speakers have criticised for the voice when it hasn’t bothered me at all. I completely agree about hype – it really puts me off novels. But I would love to know what you think of this one. It’s a really hard book to call – I’m pretty sure you’d find it intriguing.

  9. First of all, can I extend my sincerest thanks for your critical words about Forrest Gump? I know the reason I hate that movie is to do with how everyone used to go “Ruuuunn, Jennay, ruuunn!” in all my PE classes as a kid, BUT I also don’t think that it’s a good movie by any reasonable standard. Because of the exact reasons you say, sentimentalizing and simplifying. GOD do I hate that movie.

    People have such opposite reactions to the two halves of the book! I started finding Jack’s voice difficult to deal with in the second half, when they got out into the world. Before that it was all very very suspenseful. I liked the second half too but not nearly as much.

    • Jenny, how you make me laugh about your PE classes. One day I will tell you all about my humiliations in the netball team, one day when I am feeling very strong. I have very averse reactions to any book or movie that tugs the sentimental string. I find it almost impossible to watch or read (most loathed film of all time: Ghost). I completely agree that the two halves of Room divide a lot of readers (is that a pun?). I find that really intriguing.

  10. I wasn’t sure about reading this. The hype when it was first out didn’t reflect my type of book. Your review made me think again, then it was on the shelf at the library, and I’m finding it a more thoughtful book than I expected. I can’t imagine the story without Jack as the narrator, and am pondering what that means about the story. Thanks

    • Readerlane, I am so glad that you are getting along with the novel so far. I think that’s a really interesting observation about Jack as narrator. You’re quite right – it would be a completely different story if it was told from Ma’s perspective. Completely.

  11. Fascinating! I had avoided it for precisely the same reasons as you. This is the only review that has made me reconsider. I love that idea of the limited world we need as children and detest as adults. I still think with nostalgia about how simple things were when I was a young child, how safe and certain. I remember I even had a few obsessive-compulsive habits, like avoiding pavement cracks, and repeating an action with my left hand if I’d done it with my right. But as an adult all that disappeared, and in fact I’ve done a lot to break out of safe situations and search for something more unpredictable. You’ve made me see the book in a new light altogether, and I might indeed read it now.

    By the way, had to comment using my old account – when I tried using the usual name, email and website, it told me I wasn’t logged in (?)

  12. Gah, this wordpress commenting problem! I drove me nuts for ages. If it keeps happening, try omitting your email from the details. I still have some trouble with certain computers in my house that seem to refuse to accept my details.

    I really like the way you express it – the world we need as children and detest as adults. That’s it exactly. I had all sorts of superstitions and rituals when I was a child that I tried hard to shake off. And I’m glad to know that was not just me! I would love to know what you make of this novel. It is a curious one, and almost impossible to call as a recommendation. But I’m sure you would have a reaction to it, and that’s intriguing in itself.

  13. Amazing review. I, too, was put off by Jack’s voice and was so certain that the book would turn nasty once again in the second half that I was quite conflicted when it actually turned out ok. Not my favorite book. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on it.

  14. Pingback: Recent Reading Round-Up: Cohen, Donoghue, Knox » Novel Readings - Notes on Literature and Criticism

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