Jack is 5, and he lives in Room with Ma. Also in Room are Bed, Wardrobe, Sink and Table. For Phys Ed, they stack all the furniture on Bed and run a track around Room. One day, Jack and Ma measure Room and it is 11 feet by 11 feet. Outside Room is Outer Space. Stores and animals and people besides Ma and Old Nick only live in TV. And each night, just before 9, Jack goes and lies down in Wardrobe before the beep-beep of the door opens—and Old Nick comes in.
This is where Emma Donoghue’s Room begins, a tale told through the perspective of a little boy in a very difficult situation—he just doesn’t know it’s difficult. Jack finds safety and comfort in this Room, the only world he has ever known, with Ma. In his great imagination, he paints a picture of the miniature dystopian society Ma has created for him. They thrive on a deep connection, even as Ma longs to break free from the prison she has been in for seven years. The book is an unparalleled look at the effects of abduction and its aftermath, all through the eyes of a little boy who has not seen the outside world.
Donoghue is a well-published and well-known Irish author, but her latest offering could very well be her masterpiece. Room has been lauded by critics and readers alike, and short-listed for the Booker Prize. The novel is exquisitely written, with subtle characterization and slight yet ominous foreshadowing. Within the beautiful world that Jack describes, there are hints of tensions and terror, of something not right. (The first night I started reading it, I could not sleep due to the unsettled feeling it gave me. The second night, I stayed up far later than I should have to get to a good stopping point. And the third night, I finished the book, exhausted but basking in the pangs of a good book ending.)
The world that Jack lives in is comfortable for him, but every good book needs conflict and change, and that change happens when Jack turns 5. An inquisitive boy, he starts to ask the right questions, and his mother is unable to maintain the charade that kept him in the innocence of childhood. It’s too much for Jack’s brain to understand, but his trust in his mother and her veracity is what drives him to be the key in their attempted escape.
But then the next question is, What happens if and when they escape? What would Jack’s safe life need to sacrifice, and how much would be too much? And would it even be possible for them to reenter a world that Ma has not seen in years and that Jack has never even imagined? What happens when Ma and Jack aren’t the only two people in their world any longer—how can they let go of relying so fully on the other?
All of these are questions brought up by the story, the tone of which is curious and childlike. Donoghue has two young children, and she knows how they think. She ignores the rules of grammar to get the reader inside the head of the child and creates details that ring true to a child’s life, such as Jack’s best friends being Dora the Explorer and Baby Jesus. Donoghue balances beautifully between telling the story, by appealing to the remembered innocence of the reader, and developing the plot, asking the reader to reason and understand what is happening even if the speaker of the story does not.
Jack and Ma’s opening situation is a terrifying one, but the novel also lets us know healing doesn’t magically occur even if rescue does. The Hollywood movie may end with a hug and grateful tears, but real life is not that simple. With an experience such as abduction, there are many years of readjustment to follow. That readjustment can be more scary than a life in an 11x11 room, especially for a little boy. As readers, we long for that fairy-tale ending, but this book serves as a reminder that love and support are much needed after a loved one has gone through a traumatic experience—even though that is often when it is hardest to give it.
Room is not always emotionally easy to read, but the book is worth it. This beautiful tale alternates pain and hope, as any good story does. It’s about growing up, about losing innocence and gaining knowledge of this world, and not knowing whether that is good or bad. But mostly it’s about a love between a mother and her child, formed in Room but able to survive in Outer Space.