Does the idea of reading a novel about a young woman and her five year old son who have been imprisoned in an 11×11 room for seven years turn you off? Me too. However, Emma Donoghue, in her 2010 novel Room, crafts a story that is wondrous, meditative, and transformative. Instead focusing on the mental anguish of the victims, Donoghue writes a quiet, focused story of a child and his mother. Donoghue’s decision to use the voice of five-year-old Jack as her narrator gives the book an urgency and sense of wonder from the first paragraph.
Jack believes that his world, the world of Room, is all there is. Inanimate objects like Wardrobe (where Jack sleeps when ‘Old Nick’ comes to ‘visit’ his mother), Chair, Table, Rug, and Skylight are the things that ‘people’ Jack’s life. Although Jack is exposed to the broader world through the small television set in Room, his mother intentionally leads him to think that there is nothing ‘Outside’. Donoghue doesn’t dwell on how Jack and his mother come to be in Room, she focuses instead on what Jack is seeing and feeling and thinking, especially as his world changes dramatically.
Inspired by several instances in the news where children were born and raised in similar captivity, Donoghue became intrigued with the idea of what exposure to the real world might seem like to a five-year-old who had never seen the ‘outside’. In an interview shortly after Room was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize, Donoghue acknowledges studying her own children’s speech and language patterns in order to create a language that would be realistic for a five year old, but not a barrier to a reader. The voice of the narrator is unsettling, to be sure, but it serves the story well, and immerses the reader into the viewpoint of the narrator. The author’s faithfulness to Jack’s point of view is what makes this small story so riveting.
Room is a short novel, and can be read in just a few days. It has a simple plot with few twists, no cliffhangers, and no flashbacks, which seems odd to the modern reader. Room has two main characters, Jack and Ma, and, stripped of all other literary embellishments, it is the powerful relationship between those two characters that carries the story for all of its 321 pages. Because it is so minimal, this novel truly does become a sort of meditation. Instead of sitting cross legged on a cushion with closed eyes, however, the reader is holding a book, and what happens in that book takes on the same tight, closed feeling that Jack’s life has – this book becomes a whole world. Through Jack, we enter that world completely, and his experience changes the reader as much as it does him.