By Emma Donoghue
Review by Virginia Garrett
Room is a delightful book written by Irish author, Emma Donoghue. The book hit was an immediate international best seller as soon as it was published. Selling over two million copies, it won the Hughes and Hughes Irish Novel of the Year, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize (for best Canadian novel). It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Orange Prize, as well as being the recipient of many other awards. These awards alone make it a novel with great literary merit.
Room is the story of a woman kidnapped and kept in an eleven-by-eleven-foot backyard shed for seven years. Two years into her captivity she gives birth to a boy, Jack. Together they spend five years in this one small room. A few pictures dot the walls that had been covered with cork, a large rug covers the cork that is also on the floor. The furniture in Room consists of a bed, a wardrobe, table, refrigerator, and a sink.
The skylight in the ceiling is the one source of contact Jack and Ma have with the outside world. They own a television, but Ma had told Jack the shows were not real. He seems to believe the only things that are real are himself, Ma, and Old Nick. (Old Nick is name Jack gave to the man who kidnapped Ma.) The only real items are those he can see and hear, touch and taste. When a leaf blows on the skylight he is convinced it is not real. “I thought the word for us was real. The persons in TV are made just of colors” (page 13). This bit of untruth, spoken to protect young Jack and his Ma, proved to be a hindrance as the book unfolds. Ma devises a plan for her and Jack to escape from Room, but it requires Jack to believe her now. He, as one would expect, struggles to believe there is a world outside of his own. The escape is daring and not without issues. While it is successful, one needs to ask, “at what cost?”
My own reactions to the book are varied and nearly unexplainable. I began the book expecting to hate it. My taste in novels tends to run more along the lines of classic literature, not contemporary, and the subject matter of this one made is suspect in my book. Most novels have a tendency to drag me into them until I begin to live in the story. As a parent, it is difficult for me to read about hard situations of other parents and children. I feel the crushing weight of all the characters are experiencing. Being intrigued by the first page, I kept reading and kept expecting to hate it. I knew there would be something to change my mind and I would begin to dislike the book. Only it never came.
The response in the class was varied. Some of my classmates did not find Jack a believable character. Jack did have some interesting turns of phrase, for example, “Table” in place of “the table”. It isn’t that he was opposed to definite articles, he simply named them what they are. Children are often given to naming things and tend to choose easy, obvious names.
We also discussed at some length the spiritual metaphors of the book. At first glance at the Reader’s Guide in the back of the book there is an interview with Emma Donoghue. One of the questions she is asked deals with this subject. She says:
Whether you see these as comforting lies of eternal verities, they are part of how we help kids make sense of the world. I think that’s why the religious element of Room doesn’t seem to bother nonreligious readers; they can just put it on a par with Santa. But for me, Room is a peculiar (and no doubt heretical) battle between Mary and the devil for young Jesus.
If Jack is a metaphor for Jesus, we can see this played out in their escape. Jack is to play dead and then come to life in the world outside of Room. In his escaping he saves her. As a believer in Jesus, there is a part that cringes because Jesus did more than play dead, He died. But for the sake of this book with its broken analogies, it can seem plausible.
Someone told me this book was not written to be liked by anyone, it was written a book to be endured and disliked. I do not echo those sentiments. I believe this book is one that should be read with an open mind. It will stretch our understanding of life and five-year-old boys. It will make us grateful the life we life, the space we live in, and the freedom to enjoy life as God gave it to us. The literary merits and awards won should be enough to entice others to read the book, those should make it “must read” for anyone. Why is it a must read for me? Because of the glimpses we get into the inner workings of a madman and a child and the woman who is in the middle of both of them. The good and evil we all walk between every day. It shows the narrowness of a worldview that is kept small and how we each must navigate it until we can navigate it no more and must escape.
(Links for Room https://www.emmadonoghue.com/books/novels/room-the-novel.html,https://www.emmadonoghue.com/. You can view the book trailer here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E_Ci-pAL4eE.)