"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." — Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Monday, April 4, 2011

Room by Emma Donoghue

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Summary: A boy narrates his life first imprisoned in a room with his mother and then their life on the outside.

I’m giving up on so-called “popular” books. The ones that seem to brush through book clubs and best seller lists seem to have an element of violence and dysfunction that does not bring me pleasure when I read. The exception was The Help. I reluctantly read this book for my book club and shuddered with disgust and disdain for nearly the whole book.

Room was inspired by the true story of Elisabeth Fritzl, an Austrian woman who had been imprisoned in her father’s basement for twenty-four years, during which time he repeatedly assaulted and raped her. She eventually bore him seven children (one miscarriage). Three of her children had been imprisoned with their mother for the whole of their lives until rescue, at ages 19, 17 and 4. Room also references the cases of Jaycee Lee Dugard in California and Natascha Kampusch and Sabine Dardenne in Europe. I don't enjoy rape stories and I knew this was an essential element of the plot. So I had this bias going in.

Room is narrated wholly by a young boy, Jack, who has just celebrated his fifth birthday. Ma and Jack live in an 11x11 room. It’s actually a garden shed fitted with soundproofed cork, lead-lined walls, and a coded metal security door. For the past seven years, Ma has been imprisoned in this room and raped repeatedly by her captor, a man Jack calls Old Nick.  When Old Nick arrives every night or two, Jack is stored safely (?) in Wardrobe and counts the repetitive noises from the bedsprings, sometimes in groups of two or five.  I find it odd that a boy as precocious as Jack, and names his Penis, still doesn't understand what is happening to his mother. All Jack really knows about Old Nick is that he
brings groceries and Sundaytreat and disappears the trash, but he's not human like us. He only happens in the night, like bats.... I think Ma doesn't like to talk about him in case he gets realer.
The secrecy about the rape and Old Nick's brutality is supposed to be a testament to how protective his mother is - that she shelters him from life and its cruelty - but instead becomes another unresolved issue in the book.

Two years into her abduction, Ma gave birth to Jack. We eventually find out later that there was a baby before Jack, who died upon delivery. Ma, we learn, was abducted one night at age nineteen on her way to the school library.

Life is regimented in Room. Ma and Jack exercise, eat balanced meals, sleep, bathe and do chores. They also Scream, their form of therapy. Ma insists that they keep to strict mealtimes, perhaps to give some structure to their days. This is interesting. They are not really paying attention to their hunger cues, but instead eat on the clock, a form of imprisonment that seemed odd to me. If someone else controls your life, I would think you would want more freedom, not less. This was not the only jarring note of the book.

Jack refers all the objects in Room  as though they are real, living personalities. There’s Wardrobe, a Rug, Plant and Meltedy Spoon. It wasn’t cute, but tiresome. It's also unclear whether Ma has decided this or Jack.
We have thousands of things to do every morning, like give Plant a cup of water in Sink for no spilling, then put her back on her saucer on Dresser.... I count one hundred cereal and waterfall the milk that’s nearly the same white as the bowls, no splashing, we thank Baby Jesus.
Why some things were capitalized with personalities and others weren't is never explained. Sink gets a name, but saucer doesn't? C'mon.

What I found most charming was that Jack is still nursing at age 5. In fact, when I first read the line "I had some." I thought there was a typo.  Some is Jack's word for breastmilk. (Why isn't Some capitalized, since it's obviously so important?) Jack, like my youngest daughter Vivien, prefers the left side. (Vivien is not still nursing, but that was my choice, not hers.)

They do have a TV, which causes a real problem when Ma tries to tell Jack that Outside is real. Yet Ma's protection of Jack doesn't extend to the television. She limits his TV watching in quantity only, certainly not quality. Jack can sing along to Eminem and Woody Guthrie music videos. He knows the latest dances. He listens to people speak on TV. His own mother, the only person with whom he talks, speaks normally. He uses words like “rappelling” and “hippopotami”  and then randomly reverts to baby talk.

Some people say Donoghue amazingly captures the narrative voice of a young child. Puh-leeze. I have a 5-year-old son who’s very verbal, very physical and very affectionate, much like Jack. I also have an almost-five year old girl (adopted) who had very little stimulation or affection for the first sixteen months of her life. Jack doesn’t talk like either of them.  Even if the writing was realistic, any book either of my children wrote would be ridiculous and mind-numbingly boring, although as their mother, I'd adore it.

The story of Room is split into two parts, the first part occurring in Room and the second part occurring Outside after Ma and Jack escape. It's unclear to me at least, exactly what prompts Ma's sudden urge to escape now. Is it that her rotting tooth is incredibly painful? Is it that Jack might come to see Old Nick as something good, who brings lollipops, instead of something unreal? Is it because Old Nick has lost his job and might leave them to die alone in Room when power is cut off?

The escape is ridiculous. For a child who doesn’t even believe the outside world exists, to do what Jack did is beggars belief. It seemed illogical to me that Old Nick would fall for the final escape plan - why would he not check the rug, and how could he be so easily convinced to take the "corpse" away so quickly?

C'mon, Emma! (Since Ma is never referred to by her real name, I named her Emma, after the author.) Why not escape by figuring out the combination on the lock? With seven years in captivity, Ma could have figured out some sort of mathematical system of trying thousands of combinations. Or maybe save up dust (or something sticky) and brush the dust on the buttons to see which were touched. Or memorize the sounds of the buttons. It seemed unrealistic that she would have only come up with the "corpse" plan at the last minute. With all those years, a last minute desperate plan should have had more thought.

Ma's reaction when she's finally Outside also seems odd. She rejects everything about Room and seems to have no problems adjusting to her new life, while Jack struggles with depth perception, sunlight and the new sensations. Ma also doesn't seem as clingy once Outside, which troubles Jack deeply.

I felt like this book capitalizes on our secret glee and horror in the many real life cases that have made the news recently. And having it from a five-year-old’s perspective exclusively felt gimmicky. This will be a polarizing book – people will probably either love it or hate it.


  1. It will be an interesting discussion. And Ma's name is Sharon. ;)