Saturday, August 21, 2010

Room, by Emma Donoghue


--warning-- this review may contain spoilers -- so beware

Jack is a five year old boy who lives in an 11 x 11 space with his mother that Jack calls "Room." Not only is this place their home, Room is the only world that this child has ever known.  He has never been outside Room, and although he and his mother (Ma) have a television, Ma has told him that what he sees on the tube is not real.  The door to Room is always locked.  Although Jack doesn't know this, Ma has worked very hard to make life as normal for Jack as it possibly can be given the circumstances -- Jack and Ma eat, sleep, exercise, play games, sing songs, have lessons and conversations all within Room's confines.

We learn about life in Room through Jack, who narrates the story.  The routines differ only sometimes at night, when the man that Jack has dubbed "Old Nick" occasionally shows up and Jack needs to go inside "Wardrobe," where he has to sleep, until Old Nick is gone again. Jack doesn't like Old Nick and instinctively feels something rather sinister about the man's presence; at the same time he knows that Old Nick is the one that he and Ma depend on for food, clothing, and the occasional "Sundaytreat."  Jack's observations of Room, his world view within this space, and his conversations with Ma are often surprisingly adult in nature, considering he's only five, but at the same time, the reader is still very conscious that Jack is just a little boy, still learning about and trying to make sense of things in his world, just like any other child his age.  But then one day, Ma decides to tell Jack the truth about some things, and makes plans to leave Room forever. The rest of the novel (which is not really giving anything away if you just look at the chapter headings) describes their escape from Room into a world Jack has never known, as well as its aftermath -- leading to collisions between what Jack has always believed was  real and what people are now telling him is real. And, just when you're comfortable thinking that this is only a work of fiction, FYI, Room is based on true events from Austria, the famous Kampusch kidnapping case.

I liked this book, but didn't fall in love with it the way most people who've read it have. At its heart,  it's a good story with a fresh premise.  Making Jack's eyes the ones through which the reader sees the Room world was a good idea -- there's much more immediacy to the story, making the reader wonder why they're there and what's going to happen.  Even though Jack's credibility often seemed a bit strained as a narrator due to his precocious and adult-like vocabulary, the fact that Donoghue also showed his child side makes this work.  The fact that Donoghue did not roam into the realm of the tawdry, either about the abduction or especially during Old Nick's night-time visits is to her credit -- doing this would have only cheapened the story to the point where I would have probably put the book down. Yet at the same time,  the second half of the book doesn't quite manage to hold on to the taut and clever construction of the first part, which had me reading nonstop. I won't say anything more specific, because I do not wish to give away the entire show.  

I predict that when this book hits the US next month it is going to sell big time. It comes on the heels of several widely-reported cases of kidnappings and victim rescues. It is designed to tug at heartstrings, and the author does that well. Finally, quite frankly, it's very reader friendly.   There isn't a lot of flowery prose, it's easy to read, resonates well with the fears of modern-day parents, and is generally suited to a wider audience of readers than most books that show up on the Booker Prize longlist.  I think it will do very well. That's not saying I think this is a great book, but I think it is going to be quite successful.


  1. This sounds so creepy and that it is based on a true story is even creepier.

    It is funny how we, as book bloggers, can now start to put our fingers on books that are going to hit big. I just wish that we could get some of the really great examples of the craft higher up on the lists!

  2. Gwen: it's not really that it's creepy...actually, the second half of the book (without giving it all away) is just kind of sad -- and makes you really consider the notions of perception and reality.

    And you're right...I think that there are so many good books that never become popular sellers. The thing is, though, that books that do become hot items keep the bookstores in business...and that's okay by me.

  3. I will probably read this book. I have read the author before (Slammerkin), if that is the same Emma Donoghue, I like the way she tells her story. Thanks.

  4. It's the same author. I really liked Slammerkin (read it forever ago, it seems). I liked Room, but to be quite honest, I probably wouldn't have bought it, given the subject matter, if it weren't on the Booker longlist this year.

  5. I have been hearing a lot of things about this book, and am waiting for my copy so that I can see for myself. I doubt I would pick it up either, if not for the fact that it is on my Booker longlist.

  6. I mean on "the" Booker long list, lol!


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