09 January 2011
Review of Emma Donoghue, Room
I want to talk about the main reason that I loved it, which is that I found it to be very unique and complete. Certainly the book has a clever premise: The narrator of the book, five year old Jack, and his mother (Ma) live in a room. For Ma, the room is a prison where she has been held captive for the past 9 years. For Jack, room is the entire universe. Ma is a young mother, who has used every ounce of her creativity to protect her son from the knowledge of their situation, until he turns five, when she begins to explain to him that there is life outside of room. I'll stop here before too many spoilers, although there will be a few ahead, so beware. As I said, the premise is clever, but has potential to be poorly executed. Luckily- at least in my opinion- the execution is genius. Donoghue creates powerful dramatic irony, by allowing the reader to see what Jack can't, but without breaking from Jack's limited voice and point of view. The scenes in that take place in room are thoughtful, showing the creativity that is innate in young children, and also the often uncomfortable closeness that develops between mother and child when they are the only two people in the world. Ma is fiercely protective of Jack, insisting that he never encounter his father, the man holding them captive, "Old Nick."
SPOILERS AHEAD... As much as I liked (although that seems like the wrong word) the scenes in room, it is after Ma and Jack make their escape that I believe the book really revealed its genius. I have read criticism of this book that Jack does not respond appropriately to the trauma that he has been through. Certainly Ma responds in the standard way, although we know that there really is no standard way to respond to trauma. However, Jack is the true brilliance of the novel, because his response to the outside world is so thoughtful and fitting; it is what made the book truly unique for me as a reader. Jack has never known a world other than room, and Ma has spent all his life protecting them from the reality and the trauma of their situation. So, in a sense, until his fifth birthday, the escape, and his Ma's struggles after leaving room, Jack hasn't really experienced the trauma that Ma has. She has experienced it for both of them. Jack is merely awestruck, and terrified of the "real" world, which he thought only existed on TV. Donoghue includes incredibly perceptive details, like Jack's lack of depth perception and inability to go down stairs; I'm also thinking of the scene in the mall, where he takes things that aren't his because he has no knowledge of ownership. These details made the novel fascinating and complete. Jack both drove me nuts and made me sad and all the while revealed many aspects of our culture that we never see, but become clear through Jack's alien point of view.
Bottom Line: Read this. This was one of the most unique, readable, un-put-downable books I read this year. In my humble opinion, it lived up to the hype.