Review: Room

Room by Emma Donoghue. Little, Brown. 2010. Borrowed copy.

The Plot: Five year old Jack lives with Ma in Room. His entire life, all he knows, is within these four walls. Rug, with the spot on it from when he was born. Bed, where he wakes up with Ma in the morning. Wardrobe, where he goes to sleep because that is when Old Nick opens the locked door, takes away the trash, bring supplies.

Jack tells his story, starting with the known World, then finding out that a world existed Outside, and finally trying to navigate a world full of people and things and smells and sounds. A story of safety and freedom, of known and unknown, and, through it all, the fierce bond he shares with Ma.

The Good: When I first heard about Room, I knew one thing. I didn’t want to read it. A woman kidnapped, raped, kept in a shed. A child born of that rape, raised in isolation. It was just too horrible to hear about, to think about. Why spend over 300 pages with the heartbreak of a woman who loses over seven years to a monster? When I read adult fiction, it tends to be mysteries or romance or historical fiction. The crime fiction I read tends to be told from the safe perspective of the police officer, the detective, the federal agent, not the victims. Even though I knew from reviews that halfway through Jack and Ma escape, I just didn’t think I could bring myself to read a story about broken people.

My friend Carlie Webber said she’d read Room and liked it, and since I respect her opinion, I borrowed her copy.

WOW. I loved, loved, loved Room. Jack, five years old, is the perfect narrator. Donoghue manages to convey not only Jack’s world view and a perspective limited by age and experience but also to give enough information for the adult reader to know more than Jack knows. We know the squeaks and gasps of Old Nick’s nightly visits is the nightly rape of Ma. We know that Jack’s self-centered desire to hold onto the familiarity of Room and his belongings from that time inflicts unbelievable pain on Ma who wants full freedom from Old Nick and Room. Having gained physical escape, Ma wants that time left in her past but to Jack, Room was never a prison. It was only a place that was safe and home — “safe” and “home” because of Ma’s strength.

Ma was kidnapped at nineteen, gave birth to Jack two years later. Instead of viewing her child as a punishment, as a part of Old Nick, as a monster’s child, Ma wanted Jack. The reader realizes that Jack saves Ma because in it gives her someone to love and care for. Ma carves out some type of normalcy for her son, and that keeps Ma from going mad. While isolated in a garden shed for years, Jack keeps Ma connected to the world. Jack doesn’t realize this, so cannot tell us, but the reader figures it out from the stories Ma tells Jack and from the daily routine she has created for her son.

Kidnapped people who escape: that is Room. Despite the “ripped from the headlines” plot, this is not a “ripped from the headlines” book. Yes, there is an escape, half way through the book, but most of the book is about the details of the life Ma and Jack share before and after. Jack’s voice and language mask the horror of the captivity, so there is never terror, there is no real sense of violence, beyond Jack’s hiding in the Wardrobe during Old Nick’s visits. Ma doesn’t scream or shout or beg. Jack never comments on it, doesn’t realize what is or is not happening, but the reader knows this is just another example of what Ma is doing to fully protect her child. So, too, does it protect the reader. There are no “true crime” details of kidnapping and torture and rape here.

Room is also about the bonds between parent and child and how love can both save and smother. Ma and Jack spend every hour of every day together. Jack is Ma’s whole life. What child wouldn’t want to be the center of his parent’s existence? This love saved Ma and saves Jack, but what happens to it Outside in a world where people don’t share one small room 24/7? Jack, like any child, has to learn to be his own person, not an extension of his mother.

In Room, Ma was a great mother because she had to be. She was focused: keep Jack safe, figure out a way to escape. Once escape happens and with that, the obligation and responsibility of being The Only One in Jack’s life ends, Ma is left with — what? Who is she now and what is her role?  She was Jack’s parent, friend, and teacher because she had to be and it is all Jack knows. Is it really selfish if, once out, Ma doesn’t want all three roles? Remember, none of Ma’s struggles are told by Ma. They are told by Jack, who just knows things have changed.

I’m hoping this makes the Alex Awards, the Award from YALSA for adult books with teen appeal. Stories about women kidnapped and held captive, some bearing children in captivity, are in the news. YA books include ones about teens who are kidnapped. How does one survive, mentally and physically, for years and years and years? Room answers this question, using fiction to tell a story true — people are resilient. They survive, battered but not permanently broken.

Because this is a story about surviving, no matter what; because it is a story of the sacrifices one can and cannot make; because it is about love, both generous and self-centered, giving and demanding, Room is a Favorite Book Read in 2010.

The trailer:


16 thoughts on “Review: Room

  1. I read this book in one sitting (cliche alert, but true!) and it sat in my stomach like a lump. It really got under my skin, in the fabulous way great fiction does.

    Yup, you’ve PERFECTLY summed up the appeal of the book and of Ma and Jack as characters. It’s some kind of miracle that Jack’s voice never slips, not ever, and is situationally appropriate to every terrible (and good! Seeing Dora on a backpack!) situation he finds himself in.

    All those little details … when Old Nick tells Ma that he only built the shed for “one sedentary user” … that’s the kind of stuff that stays with you forever.


  2. Ilsa, just curious — why weren’t you going to read it? I’m always curious as to what attracts and turns off readers.

    Adele, I was really reluctant, also. Let me know what you think after you’ve read it.

    Angie, Jack’s voice is stunning. And Dora! And Old Nick! So good.


  3. Liz
    Thanks for the review – I’ve added Room to my reading pile now.

    I wasn’t going to read it for pretty much the same reasons as you. I tend to avoid all books written about (or by) the victims of abuse – I always end up picturing my children in that situation – and I don’t need to have that sort of pain constantly swirling around in my head.

    But thanks to your review I’m now looking forward to meeting Jack and his Ma.


  4. I’ve also been finding myself explaining to people who are reluctant to read this book that they shouldn’t be! Because Jack is the narrator, the situation that he and his Ma are in is only slowly and subtly revealed. A horrible story is narrated by a child who actually feels happy and safe. Brilliant.


  5. Deborah, using Jack to tell the story definately helps makes this easier to read. A great choice.

    Beth, the teen appeal as I see it is that people are in the news who, like Ma, were kidnapped as teens and survive/escape: Elizabeth Smart, for example; or, who like Ma, had children by their kidnappers: Elisabeth Fritzl, Jaycee Dugard. And, right now there are some YA kidnapped fiction books out there: LIVING DEAD GIRL & STOLEN. While ROOM is disturbing, it’s less graphic than LIVING DEAD GIRL. So, I can imagine teens reading those other books, or reading about those real life crimes, being interested in this book. It’s not in a format for my teens, so I haven’t had the chance to have teens reading it (or not) yet.


  6. This was actually one of the select few non-YA books I’ve read recently — such a coincidence that you reviewed! Or maybe not — I was actually wondering if it would appeal to other YA fans, too. I absolutely loved it. Such a compelling read, and telling the story in Jack’s voice was genius. Am wondering if another reason it might appeal to YA fans (and/or teens themselves) is because the author doesn’t underestimate the intelligence/wherewithal of children. Of course Jack is not anywhere near the age of a YA protagonist, but the author paints him with such care and respect, and with a voice that’s utterly realistic.


  7. Stephanie, good point about Jack. There are also books out there that are sold YA and don’t have YA main characters. I think there is a strong argument that Ma, not Jack, is the main protagonist of ROOM and that emotionally her maturity level is at when she was taken, 19, and she undergoes, thru Jack’s eyes, a sort of coming of age. Her life for the first half of the book is driven by protect Jack & escape and once she has done that, what now? A bit like a teen whose life is driven by escape home, escape family and small town school so that “my life gets better” and finds out…it’s not all better. One part that haunts me about ROOM is how Ma had to be looking forward to being Alone: to sleep in her own room, take her own shower, use the toilet alone and Jack wouldn’t let her because Alone was contrary to all he knew and wanted.


  8. I finished this book over a week ago and I still can’t get it out of my head. Absolutely stunning. I agree it has great teen appeal, I know I would have loved it in my teens.


  9. Dawn, another reason I think it has teen appeal is that it is a page turner and a quick read. And yes, this passes my own “when I was a teen…” test.


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