BOOK REVIEW: Room by Emma Donoghue

*Note: I initially submitted this essay for a formative assignment during my undergraduate degree*

Room_(2015_film)

Room – A Story Of Hope

A book that can be read within one sitting is an elusive find and that, I would argue, is what makes Room so special.

Emma Donoghue is no stranger to critical acclaim, having garnered much appraisal for her previous titles such as The Sealed Letter (2008) and Slammerkin (2000), she is renowned for her works in the historical fiction genre. However, Room (2010), her seventh feature-novel, differs substantially in style and draws inspiration from more recent headlines. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and adapted soon thereafter for an Academy-Award winning screen adaptation, Donoghue thrusts us into the mini-world created by Ma and Jack, a mother and son living in the small parameters of a shed.

Jack has never left the shed. He knows nothing of life beyond those 4 walls. The only source of contact with the outside world is a skylight aptly named ‘Skylight’ and a locked door, opened routinely by antagonist Old Nick, who enters by night to drop off scarce supplies and rape Ma. When the opportunity to escape presents itself, the pair find themselves facing the world outside in all of its grandeur, and must find ways to adapt to their newfound freedoms.

It must be noted, I was initially weary to begin the novel, all too aware of the many parallels critics and readers have drawn between the novel’s plot and the infamous case of Josef Fritzl (which caught the attention of global news just two years prior to publication). I remember hearing of how Elisabeth Fritzl was subjected to years of abuse and forced to mother seven of her father’s children within the concrete slabs of the crawl space beneath her old home. I additionally remember the head-shot of Fritzl, staring remorselessly into the lens, being plastered across numerous newspapers. He became the face synonymous with pure evil, much the same as Myra Hindley of the Saddleworth Murders.

With all this in mind, I was skeptical. How could Donoghue possibly deal with material so rooted in reality in a way that wouldn’t come across as exploitative, insensitive or just flat out depressing?

I received my answer on the very first page with the introduction of her brilliantly charismatic narrator:

‘Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra.’ (Donoghue, 2010: p. 3).

Just like that, we’re launched into the perspective of Jack, who combines observations of the tangible world before him with snippets of imaginative discourse. We identify with Jack as we would any other child: in fact, at times, it’s almost easy to forget the peculiar nature of his existence. He’s a loving, insightful and imaginative kid who fills his days with makeshift adventures. Despite the spatial constraints, we learn of Jack’s daily routines such as playing games, ‘finding Dora the Explorer, yippee’ (Donoghue, 2010: p. 12) and stringing together egg shells to contribute towards a mammoth snake project under Bed. The shed in which they are confined is transformed into a multi-functional space, divided up into a bedroom, kitchen and bathroom all at the same time. Room is a space in which Ma and Jack have formed their own idea of home.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s rare that one can feel as though they literally can’t put a book down but I found myself completely engaged, in my opinion, Donoghue has mastered the art of crafting the immersive novel. The novel is satiated in realism in that her depiction is both sensitive and attentive, without veering into condescension. Stream of consciousness from a child’s perspective is a difficult style to acquiesce and maintain, yet Jack’s voice consistently captures the wonder of the everyday and the overwhelming nature of the world, which he later describes as being, ‘like a cartoon I’m inside but messier.’ (Donoghue, 2010: p. 174). In an interview with Pan MacMillan Australia, Donoghue attributes the realistic depiction of Jack to the behaviour of her son who heavily influenced her writing, she claimed that she observed her son’s, ‘very pragmatic approach to the world…’ and tried to capture this in the way that Jack and Ma survive.

It’s a rather optimistic portrayal of survival given that Jack has had no contact whatsoever with anybody apart from his Ma and the occasional glimpse of Old Nick, through slits in the wardrobe at night. That said, there are plenty of subtle indications as to the ominous nature of life in Room. Whilst Donoghue does paint the picture of equilibrium, she does not shelter us from the reality of being held captive, even if gaps in Jack’s understanding of the situation means he retains a sense of obliviousness as to what is at stake each and every day.

Firstly, Jack lacks any sense of autonomy or independent identity (‘I guess my body is mine and the ideas that happen in my head. But my cells are made out of her cells, so I’m kind of hers. (Donoghue, 2010: p. 12)). It’s tender and sweet, to have such an intense connection with his mother, yet also deeply troubling and a source of conflict when a new life starts beyond the shed.

In terms of physical health, factors such as light deprivation and vitamin deficiency are daily struggles to navigate. They top up on vitamins (which are ‘medicine for not getting sick and going back to Heaven yet.’ (Donoghue, 2010: p. 11) and rely on the goods that are brought for them. Consequently, when Ma learns that these minimum yet invaluable resources could be endangered by Old Nick losing his job, the claustrophobic anxieties within Room heighten.

Mental health is precarious. For Jack, there’s days spent in isolation as Ma succumbs to being ‘Gone’, buried under the duvet, leaving Jack to fend for himself. He anxiously awaits her return, musing, ‘I don’t know what I do if I wake up tomorrow and she’s still Gone.’ (Donoghue, 2010: p. 78). On many occasions, Jack notices the signs of physical abuse on his mother (‘I see her neck again, the marks that he put on her, I’m all done giggling.’ (Donoghue, 2010: p. 66).) which causes him great distress. There’s also rituals, which grow more desperate as time goes by. A part of the day after nap time is spent screaming at the skylight and awaiting a response. He knows that they do this every day (‘but not Saturdays or Sundays’ (Donoghue, 2010: p. 50)) and yet he’s oblivious as to what response they’re trying to evoke and from whom (‘I asked Ma once what we’re listening for and she said just in case, you never know.’ (Donoghue, 2010: p. 50).

Donoghue does not allow for us to fall into the slump of depression- she motivates us with sparks of hope, incited by a wild-eyed Ma who suddenly realises that the very key to freedom is trapped in Room with her.

One of the most powerful scenes of the novel transpires to be Jack’s first encounter with the outside world. I don’t want to ruin it but I can definitely liken it to Plato’s allegory: you can feel the light pouring into his tunnel vision and the various emotions that compose the realisation that this moment changes his life irrevocably. Donoghue leads us to this catharsis with one of the most frantic passages I’ve ever read. We feel Jack’s tension, we hear his thoughts running through our minds as we read on. I would urge you to pick the book up if only to read this pivotal moment, it’s a true testament to Donoghue’s incredible storytelling.

Of course, the novel is not the first of its kind in harbouring a child narrator. In fact, just eight years before Room was published, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of A Dog in the Night-Time garnered accolade for its murder-mystery-esque tale from the eyes of a (presumably) autistic child. Critics applauded the tone of the novel, which was later theatrically adapted, and many praised the insight gained from the fifteen-year-old narrator Christopher John Francis Boone. Haddon’s depiction of Boone’s ‘alternative’ perspective was lauded to be a positive one, of interest to those studying disability theory. Haddon, however, expressed that the condition of the boy was less relevant to the story, rather that the themes of being an outsider were more of a priority in his writing.

I feel that Room could be interpreted in a similar way in that I imagine readers with interests in child psychology and abuse studies would benefit from the novel. Donoghue’s enlightening and in-depth narrative is almost a case study in itself, providing much scope into the reality of coping with trauma and attachment to a primary mother figure. Room deals with issues such as having to form new relationships in a completely overwhelming environment, having to re-establish the mother-son relationship under the scrutiny of society/the media and challenging the concept of space/mobility (mentally and physically). However, it is also an ‘easy read’ that any book lover should be encouraged to purchase on the basis of its emotional prowess.

Thematically, I feel that Room is an important exploration into healing and restoration. There’s no attempt to gloss over the traumas of the past, rather, a pensive reflection as Ma and Jack attempt to look forward towards the future. Along with his newly discovered grandparents and under the glare of paparazzi flashes, Jack encounters the stuff of dreams that is everyday life. He must learn to trust his family which have appeared practically overnight as well as deal with his mother reclaiming her old identity, stolen from her in youth.

Donoghue doesn’t present time in the Outside as being a walk in the park- she speculates as to the trials and tribulations a boy, essentially a blank slate, might face as he strives to assimilate into society. A wonderful example of this is Jack’s notion of his Samsonite power captured in his long hair, when he’s initially probed about cutting it, he refuses. However, upon thinking about it and forming a trust with his grandmother, he takes the plunge. On a phone call with his mother he remarks, ‘But I still have my strong’ (Donoghue, 2010: p. 365). Despite some adaptation to the new reality before him, Jack is still the same child who grew up in the shed.

I think, in summary, that Room is a love story, a glimpse into real connection and the sacrifices that truly loving someone entails. Donoghue transcends the limitations of the situation that the characters find themselves entrapped within, focusing instead on the more abstract theme of motherhood. In an online interview during the build up to the release of the movie, Donoghue spoke of her initial inspiration for the novel:

I had children of four and one at the time. And I think- My mind was just so full of motherhood and trying to find some way to capture the extraordinary change you go through when you’re a mother- and how you’re sort of broken and re-made by the experience. How it’s claustrophobic and it’s also full of pleasure. (Tribute Movies, 2015)

Emma Donoghue has provided us with one of the most significant contemporary novels of the era. She utilises the novel as a vehicle to critique the invasive nature of the media. We’re forced to re-evaluate real world affairs from an alternative perspective as antagonist Old Nick isn’t granted the right to a voice. Rightfully so as this is not Old Nick’s story. Perhaps this is rooted from a sympathy to the children who were stripped of their voices. When the Fritzl case exploded into circulation, the invasive media honed in on the psychopathic profile of Josef Fritzl and the vulgar details of the horrors he inflicted. His victims, completely socially deprived as they were, became the pitied poster boys and girls for domestic abuse. They were voiceless throughout the transition to life in the outside world and perceived only in relation to Fritzl, essentially condemning them to constant association with his name. Donoghue installs in the reader a sense of empathy that no black-and-white headline could possibly hope to achieve. She redirects the attention to the victims as opposed to the perpetrator, granting some sort of justice if only on the page.

Room doesn’t need a verbose narrative. Donoghue endorses a minimalistic style, proving that less is more with the powerful punch of her emotional story. Even the blurb evokes a tone of simplicity in that we are simply told that, ‘Jack is five. He lives in a single, locked room with his Ma.’ The novel needs no embellishment, it thrives as a living, breathing story to which we can all relate.

Room is a must-read, a true testament to the power of spirit and will even in times of adversity.

Bibliography

Donoghue, E. (2010). Room. London: Picador.

Australian Pan Macmillan. (2010, 18th March) Emma Donoghue Interview. (Video File) Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ru8Q_9jMdR0

Tribute Movies. (2015, 20th Oct). Emma Donoghue- Room Interview HD. (Video File) Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cwldOrpEt8A

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