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October 11, 2010

Room by Emma Donoghue

I am one of the legion of readers who initially found the premise of Emma Donoghue’s Room off-putting. Not because it was horrifying, a woman kidnapped and kept in an impenetrable cell ala Fritzl, who bears a son and has to protect and care for him within such a perilous universe. No, I thought it would be boring, two people, four walls, and the perspective of a five year-old to boot. Until other readers started reading it, and I’d never heard anyone short of raving about it, and I was promised I wouldn’t be sorry. I wasn’t. Room was gripping, fascinating and lovely, and I am awfully glad I changed my mind.

Like We Need to Talk About Kevin, however, it is a book that’s rarely separated from the issues it confronts. Yes, Room posits fascinating questions about motherhood and childhood, but I think extensive focus on these ideas undermines Room‘s literary merit. Because Emma Donoghue has created, with Jack, a point of view that never falters, that remains true. A point of view whose truth is unexpected and surprising, uncomfortable and horrifying. Through Jack’s eyes, the world is truly seen anew, and not just for Jack, but for the reader too. His unquestioning understanding that Room is the entire universe, inhabited also by Bed, Floor, and Eggsnake, and then his mother reveals that there is a world Outside, and now Jack’s faith in the order of things is shattered.

Jack and Ma’s escape from Room is terrifying, and I had to keep from skipping ahead to see that everything would turn out fine (and even when I knew that it would, I had to skip ahead again. To double check). This is plot, this is the stuff, purely unputdownable. Though the whole book has that effect– perhaps it’s the deceptive simplicity of the prose that makes one think there would be no harm in reading just a little bit more, and then they realize they’ve been reading for hours.

It’s true that the plot-drive relents in the book’s final half, but I was so fascinated by Jack’s perspective of the world Outside that I continued to be as gripped as ever. To Jack, Room was a kind of sanctuary, and now freedom in the world outside is full of threats– dogs, and rain, and UV rays, and social constraints that make no sense. It’s a strange dichotomy, amplified by Donoghue’s decision to make Jack’s extended family in the outside world well-meaning and essentially good. And yet even so, relations are impossible to navigate.

So to the issues… The overwhelming sense one gets from Jack’s existence in Room is how well taken care of he is, in spite of. How savvy his mother has been at keeping him safe, making him smart, about exeeding their own circumstantial limitations. She is a hero, is Ma, and Jack is immune to ill because of her love for him. And then when he gets out into the world, there are problems Ma had never considered. “I thought he’d be all right,” Ma says at one point, surprised at how much the force of her love and protection hasn’t compensated for everything– Jack doesn’t know how to climb stairs, how to make small talk, how to play, he is a afraid that the wind might knock him over. He has to wear a face mask for fear of exposure to germs that he’s never encountered in his life.

All of which says fascinating things to me– ultimately that a mother’s love (or a parent’s love) only goes so far, and a child needs more than four walls can give. And yet at the same time, Room gives a fascinating portrayal of how much a parent constructs a child’s universe, the weight of such responsibility.

Room was criticized elsewhere for failing to take on the politics of breastfeeding, of extended breastfeeding in particular. Jack is still breastfed when he and Ma are freed, and Aimee Bender wonders why Donoghue doesn’t use “breast-feeding as an effective symbol for that initial, primal bond between mother and child, a bond that has to evolve over time.” To which I’d answer that Donoghue’s narrator doesn’t think in terms of symbols, moreover that the extended breastfeeding was probably a purely practical matter anyway– a way for Ma to ensure that her son’s meagre diet is well-supplemented. And that their breastfeeding relationship ultimately ends the way most breastfeeding relationships do– quietly, without ceremony. I admire Donoghue’s matter-of-factness in regards to it.

All that notwithstanding, though, I do worry that critical emphasis on the Room‘s portrayal of the mother/child bond will be further off-putting for other readers, the male ones in particular. Because I think Room is a book up anybody’s alley, and Jack’s perspective would be illuminating for anyone. Though beyond the stunning literary achievement of his perspective (which is no small thing, of course), I wonder if ultimately this is not a book of enormous depth; unlike We Need to Talk About Kevin, for example, Room would not be a very different book the second time around. However, let this point not undermine its considerable force as we encounter it the first time through.

2 thoughts on “Room by Emma Donoghue”

  1. steph says:

    Ma and Jack’s escape, which you mentioned was so terrifying, was the exact scene I read aloud to my parents-in-law and hubby that time we were camping…Oh! What excellent reading aloud material that was! *All* of us were leaning forward, and I choked up at the end of the chapter.

    PS. Aside from my father-in-law, I met another man who was interested in the book. I understand your concern, though. It would be interesting to read a review written by a man.

  2. Stacey says:

    I love your review! I just finished Room and had a very similar feeling to yours about the extended breastfeeding aspect of Ma/Jack’s relationship. I was glad Donoghue approached it in a matter-of-fact way and am frankly a little tired of natural aspects of life becoming politicized especially in fiction.

    I listened to the hype and read this book but I was overwhelmed by how much it spoke to me, especially in the fierce relationship between Ma and Jack.

    Thanks for giving me a place to share my thought 🙂

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