Few books are getting more attention or acclaim this season — here in Canada, at least — than Emma Donoghue’s Room, which has just been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. All the accolades are well-deserved: this book is an amazing accomplishment and a thought-provoking look at a horrific situation, but it’s also simply an engrossing story. I could not put it down.
Room is the story of five-year-old Jack, who narrates the novel in a completely believable five-year-old voice. Jack has lived his entire life in the eleven-by-eleven foot room where he was born. His mother, known only as “Ma,” has been held captive there (it’s actually a soundproofed garden shed) for seven years, since she was abducted by a stranger at age 19.
What’s striking about the first part of the book is how content Jack is in the small self-contained world where his mother has obviously worked untiringly to make sure he is as healthy and well-educated as a boy in those circumstances can be. Ma’s patience, creativity and devotion might stretch the bounds of credibility, coming from a twenty-six-year-old girl who’s been the victim of abduction and sexual assault for almost her entire adult life. But she comes across as a believable character because of her fierce love for her son, which any mother can understand, and because her heroic parenting skills are balanced by the occasional days when she goes “Away,” as Jack puts it, succumbing to depression as she lies in bed and lets Jack fend for himself.
At the beginning of the story, Jack is content and uncurious about the outside world, but he is five, and his mother’s carefully constructed fiction that the outside world they see on TV is all fake starts to crumble under Jack’s growing intelligence and curiousity. This coincides with Ma’s growing desperation for escape, all of which culminates in a daring escape attempt — but we’re only halfway through the book. As the boy raised in a single room confronts the outside world, there are more layers both to Jack and to Ma yet to be revealed, and one of the book’s great strengths is that it doesn’t simply end with the obvious “happy ending” but goes on to explore how two people who have been treated as Jack and his Ma have, could handle re-entry into the “real world.”
The only tiny quibble I had with this otherwise brilliant book is that Room is ostensibly set in the United States, yet numerous small Britishisms creep into both Jack’s and his Ma’s speech, and in a novel where language is so important, I’m surprised this got past the editors. Every time Jack or Ma said something that an American would never say (like Jack referring to a toy as “slowcoach,” instead of “slowpoke” which would be far more common in North America) I was pulled out of the story just a tiny bit. Donoghue is an Irish writer now living in Canada (which is why both Ireland and Canada have been claiming her as “our” Booker nominee); I wondered why she bothered setting the story in the US rather than just keeping it on the side of the pond she’s clearly more familiar with.
But this is, as I said, a tiny quibble about a great book. Room is a brilliant accomplishment in terms of voice and point-of-view, but what’s really wonderful is that all this brilliant writerly craft has gone not into literary navel-gazing but into creating unforgettable characters and an absorbing story. And for those who’ve been afraid to read it because of the subject matter, without giving away too much I will say that although the subject matter is difficult and is dealt with realistically, the book does end on a life-affirming and positive note. You will not be sorry you picked up Room. You might be sorry if you don’t.