Room – Emma Donoghue

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RoomRoom by Emma Donoghue

To 5-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he was born and grew up; it’s where he lives with his Ma as they learn and read and eat and sleep and play. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits. Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it is the prison where Old Nick has held her captive for 7 years. Through determination, ingenuity, and fierce motherly love, Ma has created a life for Jack. But she knows it’s not enough—not for her or for him. Told entirely in the language of the energetic, pragmatic 5-year-old Jack, ROOM is a celebration of resilience and the limitless bond between parent and child, a brilliantly executed novel about what it means to journey from one world to another.

Here’s an excerpt read by me; how very exciting.

There were so many ways this could have failed; the premise of Room just can’t work without exact precision of its content. The narrative could’ve so easily been over-dramatic, the story predictable and poorly paced, and the characters lost to emotional plugging. Fortunately, none of this happened, and what we have in Room is a well-written, well-paced, and realistic portrayal of a somewhat convoluted situation. Donoghue hit every nail on the head. But what makes this so precise, where it could have fallen into the depths of pretention, and over-zealous details? I think the power is actually in keeping everything simple, and spending so much time delivering characters while slowly unravelling the scenarios behind them.

The whole story is told via the first-person perspective of five-year-old Jack, in a present tense narrative. Sentence structure and wording are kept within the realms of a young-boy’s stream of consciousness, and does take some getting used to. I think this is one of the book’s core strengths; going back to the idea the novel could’ve so easily derailed, told in any other voice, or even in an unrealistic one, the narrative stance probably wouldn’t have been as striking as it is. Jack has the often over-used innocent viewpoint of a child, but here we are allowed to explore this perspective more deeply. We aren’t just introduced to a saint of a kid, locked in unfavourable conditions, and yet maintaining the strength and courage to overcome it; no, instead we are taken into the mind of a child. While there are aspects he doesn’t favour, Jack is perfectly happy with his universe, and realistically, that makes sense, because it’s all he’d ever known. He sulks, he ponders, he becomes restless, and asks unanswerable questions, he acts like you’d expect a five-year-old to behave. That doesn’t mean we don’t get a sense of the damage the situation has done to him, in fact this tactic actually causes the tragedy of the situation to stand-out. We know what’s considered normal, and Jack doesn’t; he doesn’t know what he’s missing, or failing to comprehend, and we do. We relate to Jack through our own expectations of him, and this creates a memorable and touching character, by just acting how a kid would act. Powerful stuff.

The situation is one of those ugly ideas nobody really wants to talk about, and like Jack, we’re kept away from the severity of it for a while. Donoghue drops hints as to what’s going on, and its not all that hard to just guess the issues surrounding the unfolding events, but somehow we always remain as removed from the unnaturalness of it, as Jack is. This brings out the strength in other characters. Ma is a constant presence, trying to make nice of her unpleasant living conditions; she’s the infallible mother figure, but while we’re on Jack’s line of thinking for some time, there are many subtle revelations about what’s really going on inside her head. We see a woman crumbling in on herself, and yet doing her best to maintain a healthy environment for her son. I think most parents can in some way relate to this. Though Donoghue never pushes Ma’s pain or fear in our faces, it’s easy to care about her as much as Jack. Our investment in Ma is presented via Jack, through the undertones that we can see, and he can’t. The same goes for our only antagonist, simply referred to as Old Nick. I love the fairy-tale badness of his name, and it really ties in well with some of the themes of the story, but we’ll get to that. It doesn’t take much to dislike this guy, he’s a stand-up, basic, bad-man, and while usually this might be considered poor characterisation, here it really works. He doesn’t really appear very often in the story, just a couple of scenes, but his impact is very strong. Donoghue has allowed for your own prejudices and ideas about kidnappers, rapists, and criminals to create a picture of him, and really that’s more than enough. We get a sense he has a story, maybe even his own twisted reasons for doing what he does, but that’s never a focus, and it doesn’t need to be. Once again, Jack’s mind-set becomes ours. Heck, Jack doesn’t even seem to dislike him at first, seeing him as a god-like being able to conjure treats and presents, but even he seems to comprehend something’s not right about Nick’s actions. One of the most emotional details is Jack’s reaction to the creaking bed. Subtle in playing with our perceptions in comparison, this detail tells us everything we need to know about Nick, almost without any other introduction to him at all.

There were areas of the novel where the threads of realism did start to unravel. Donoghue is always tittering on the line between real and dramatic, and sometimes she over-steps her boundary. I know that a lot of thorough research went into this work, and I’m not denying the truth belying the events, but once we actually leave Room, I think Donoghue tries too hard to gain emotional responses. The reaction of the press is used too much, the interview is rushed and a major exposition spinner, and Ma being reunited with loved ones feels like she’s just come back from the shops. I know this is partly coming from Jack’s viewpoint, but often I thought that if this was how Jack preserved everything, with such little detail and importance, then why include it at all? There’s another scene in which Jack is rejected by his Grandfather, and I thought this was a hurried addition, to try and add another obstacle to adjusting to the outside world, but this is seen once and never really touched upon again. These were minor inconveniences in an otherwise solid plot, so that’s probably why they stick out so much. They don’t undermine the experience of the story so much as distract from it.

The plot has an odd, but logical pacing, and includes one of the tensest scenes I’ve read for some time. We start slow, building upon setting and characters with ease, but the compelling voice of Jack never makes anything boring. With such a childlike tone, it’s hard to be uninterested even with such a narrow setting. Exploring the outer world with Jack is synonymous with investigating society and it’s influences on us as people as we grow. The way Donoghue establishes a fresh look at what we already know is astounding, and shows the efficiency and craftsmanship of her writing. Jack asks questions I never thought to, and in doing so poses questions about how strange the normalness of our world can be. The second half of the book both compliments and contrasts with the first. There are a lot of themes centring mostly on childhood, and freedom, but in very interesting ways; the fantasy and fairy-tale notion I mentioned earlier is probably one of the most poignant. This crops up in books, on TV, and stories told by Ma, but mostly it’s part of Jack’s imagination, and is the best window we have into just how the lack of true freedom, and then the suddenness of it, affects him.

This is one of those rare books where the effort behind it’s creation is always observable; the characters are real, the storyline compelling, and the intentions clear. The book, while often getting close, never veers of course, and uses every word of content to its best. The research and planning spent crafting this novel make it one of great heart; it brings emotion out of its readership by appealing to the humanity within us. It’s unique, inspiring, and the world doesn’t seem quite the same when you’ve finished.

View all my reviews

This book has a pretty cool website;


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