Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel Room is earning more attention after the reception of its critically-heralded film adaptation, for which actress Bree Larson won an Oscar for her portrayal of “Ma.” As a young college student, Ma was kidnapped, duped into getting into a truck with what turned out to be a terrible man, referred to in the novel as “Old Nick.” Jack is the product of one of the many rapes Ma endures. Room is their prison, yes, but for Jack, it is his whole world. Everything he knows is shaped by its confines and limitations. Ordinary objects take on lives of their own. The world that you and I know is “only TV” to Jack. (Donoghue’s decision to grant the characters TV during their imprisonment is a good one, at least it gives Jack some frame of reference and idea of the world.) Donoghue does remarkably well given the narrow scope of Room’s dimensional limitations; through Jack’s eyes, everything is larger than it seems to the reader, particularly when he discovers “outside.”
Despite the horrific nature that is the novel’s premise, Room is still not what I would categorize as an upsetting or depressing read. Because the novel is narrated with Jack’s voice, it takes on an optimistic tone that can only come from a child’s perspective. It is not a spoiler to reveal that Jack and Ma do escape Room alive, as the second half of the book documents their recovery and attempts to acclimate to the world (Ma the world she knew and mournes during her capture; Jack a world of firsts and brand new everything). There is plenty of evil in Room, but it is for the most part cushioned by Jack’s characteristic innocence and endless curiosity.
I did have some difficulty with a couple of things: Jack’s level of understanding of some things seemed overly advanced (words like vomit, agonizing, disgusting, and understanding the employment of sarcasm) and at others very deficient (“hotted” instead of “heated”, etc.). Those disparities were hard for me to reconcile, but I tried not to be too critical. One can never really know what is going on in a 5 year-old’s mind, and Donoghue’s interpretation (inspired by her own son) does seems to accurately represent language aquisition patterns of a young child with limited exposure to language, outside of TV and his mother, of course.
To read Room is in a way, to rediscover the world. It offers the reader fresh perspective and insight into things that we accept without question, most importantly, the value of personal freedom. As many other reviewers have noted, Room is sharply illustrative of the impermeable bond between a mother and her child. For every fear or ache, Donoghue provides the reader winks of hope through Jack’s unique introduction to our beautiful and confusing world.