Emma Donoghue’s excellent novel Room was rightly shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and the first four (three really) inept words that came to mind after reading it were: ‘really good, really creepy’. It makes me cringe now to think that I didn’t have anything more intelligent to say; but I was emotionally exhausted and, really, no words can quite describe the world Donoghue has created in an eleven square foot shed.
Room is 5-year-old Jack’s world, solely inhabited by him, Ma, Plant and the nightly visits from Old Nick. He hasn’t been lied to about his surroundings, just not told the whole truth. It is from this state of awareness, but not of information, that the unnerving story is told. The adult world is filtered through the eyes and mouth of a young boy so removed, and yet so central, from the grimmest aspects of Outside. To Jack, Room is normal. Things that he sees on TV are just TVpeople and TVanimals; the air that gets brought in when Old Nick opens the door is Outside air; and the Skylight (the only source of natural light) is Outerspace. Jack describes these boundaries and worlds so thoroughly that we almost start to become part of Wall, Bed and Sink.
Donoghue commands the narrative so powerfully that it never slips or sounds contrite. In Jack’s speech pronouns are missing, verbs muddled and repetition adored. This jaunty narration makes Jack a thoroughly compelling and strange little character. Through his innocent eyes and thoughts, Donoghue pours the violence, horror and adult traumas of our Outside world. There is a constant feeling of discomfort for the reader as we are put in the position of knowing more than the protagonist. It is more than just dramatic irony; we know what needs to be ‘unlied’ and we feel that we are withholding information. We know that afternoon PhysEd is to make sure Jack’s limbs don’t atrophy; we know that Eye-Stretch through Skylight is to make sure that they don’t lose their longsighted abilities; and most disturbingly we know that an afternoon game of Scream isn’t just to have fun making a racket. We feel almost as uneasy as Ma in our knowing.
Yet by hearing the story from Jack’s perspective we are able to deal with the horror of his imprisonment; had it been told from Ma’s perspective we might have found it too harrowing and selfishly been able to shut the book and forget all about it. The only glimpse we have of Ma’s thoughts and feelings is from the epigraph:
It is an incredibly moving excerpt from Simonides’ Danaë; Ma’s voice, in this section, is dark and fraught. But in the metre and intonation Donoghue has created for Jack we are met with moments of lightness in his games, his interpretations and his fiercely close relationship with his mother.
Donoghue is also able to explore the human trait, or strength, of forming relationships through Jack and his innocence. He has no normal familial relationship – Mother and Father are certainly not functioning together, nor are Father and Son. But Mother and Son create the family themselves. The notion of Stockholm Syndrome is bandied around by some caustic journo from Outside, but Donoghue explores so many other bonds that define Ma and Jack far more than their forced relationship with their captor. Inside Room Jack forms bonds with everything, from Eggsnake (a toy snake made from eggshells) to the cork tiles that line the inside walls, but he cannot comprehend that Ma also has her own Ma. Once Outside, Jack, and Ma, must adjust to being part of a wider family and society. The reformation of Ma’s family is fraught and uneasy. But Donoghue is sympathetic to the complex and confused emotions of the characters.
Donoghue’s ability is to portray humans and relationships at their rawest. Nothing is saccharine or given a dose of Hollywood. In a dark and emotionally draining novel, she has captured the ability humans have to fight and to survive. And she has created a limitlessly intriguing young character to tell the tale.