Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Room ~ Emma Donoghue

I have to say that if I'm honest I've been avoiding Emma Donoghue's book Room ever since it first came out and there was so much publicity about its links with real life cases of abduction and imprisonment.  I thought it was one of those books that I would simply be unable to read because its subject matter would hurt so much.  That may be cowardly of me.  Perhaps it would be better for me to read books that cause me empathetic pain and force me into accepting the very real evil that does exist and which I have been so lucky as to avoid.  However, the truth is that I don't find such books easy reading and am therefore likely to put them to one side and they remain unfinished.

So, when Room turned up on one of my book group lists I wasn't quite certain how I was going to approach it.  I decided in the end that I would set myself a goal of fifty pages a day in the hope that I would never have to spend so much time in the world of abuse that I would be unable to continue with the reading.

The first day didn't go too badly at all.  There is no way that an adult can ignore the fact that what is being described is a situation so horrific as to be most women's worst nightmare but, because the narrator is five year old Jack, we are cushioned from that.  The one room in which he and his mother are confined is the only world that he knows and for him it is security.  His days are filled with creativity and love and he is content.  Oh, he'd like a bit more in the way of Sunday treats, but for the most part he is a happy child.  It's almost the extreme possible argument for a child being better off if they have clear cut boundaries.  Jack certainly has boundaries and they define his life in a way which at five make him feel safe.  How's that for irony?

So, the first day didn't go too badly.  I did have an argument with Donoghue on the very first page because I wasn't convinced and I'm still not convinced that a child of five would be able to handle the concept of minus numbers.  I've come across a good number of undergraduates who still have a problem with the idea.  But, I was willing to let that go if only because so far the book hadn't been the painful read I'd been anticipating.  I was beginning to think that this was going to be one of those books that I would be glad that I'd read even though I would never be able to read again.

Then came day two - remember, fifty pages!  It was a Sunday, so I thought I'd knock them off first thing in the morning and have the remainder of the day for more pleasant reading.  Four hours later I climbed out of the mental wringer that the rest of the book had put me through not having been able to put it down until I'd finished it and I knew that this was a book to which I would return time and time again.

I am not going to go into the story because I'm sure most people will already know what this novel is about and neither am I going to wax lyrical about the way in which Donoghue controls the narrative voice because I know that my obsession with the way in which the narrative voice is used is not universally shared.  (I once heard Philip Pullman say that the most important decision a writer had to make about a book was the nature of the narrative voice and I had to be forcibly stopped from standing up and cheering!)  But I do just want to mention the, to me at least, very interesting comments the author seems to be making about what are and what are not universal truths and philosophical dilemmas that are actually native to our human way of thinking.

I almost passed the first of these by without noting it.  Jack has just learnt that the world he sees on the television is a representation of something that is real and he is forced to reflect on what this means for his own reality.

Outside has everything.  When ever I think of a thing now like skis or fireworks or islands or elevators or yo-yos, I have to remember they're real, they're actually happening in Outside all together.  It makes my head tired.  And people too, firefighters teachers burglars babies saints soccer players and all sorts, they're all really in Outside.  I'm not there, though, me and Ma, we're the only ones not there.  Are we still real?

But, I had to go back to it when I hit the Schrodinger's Cat problem.  During the moments of his escape from Room, wrapped in a rug that threatens to smother him, Jack realises that for the first time ever he has left the security of the only home he has ever known and in a panic asks himself.

I'm not in Room.  Am I still me?

Only later, when he and his mother are safe to turn that around to

Is Room still there when we're not in it?

How do we know who we are?  How do we understand our own reality in relation to that of those around us?

There are echoes of towering truths from literature as well;  understandings that our greatest writers have come to and passed down, but which Jack discovers for himself.  As he considers the implication of growing older he comments

Before I didn't even know to be mad that we can't open Door, my head was too small to have Outside in it.  When I was a little kid I thought like a little kid, but now I'm five I know everything.

And later, as he begins to comprehend the enormity of Outside and the people it contains he echoes Shylock's great speech on the universality of humanity.

I think about all the kids in the world, how they're not TV they're real, they eat and sleep and pee and poo like me.  If I had something sharp and pricked them they'd bleed, if I tickled them they'd laugh.

There are several other examples of Jack trying to come to terms with the nature of of the world he eventually finds himself in and especially of the vexing question as to what is real and what is not, what is a valid response to any situation and what is either not acceptable or simply false.  I will simply finish with what I think is most telling.  Jack is indulging in a new game at the home of his grandparents, namely channel surfing, and he hears his own name not in real but in TV.

"...need to listen to Jack."

"We're all Jack, in a sense," says another man sitting at the big table.

"Obviously," says another one.

Are they called Jack too, are they some of the million?

"The inner child, trapped in our personal Room one oh one," says another of the men, nodding.

I don't think I was ever in that room.

"But then perversely, on release, finding ourselves alone in a crowd..."

"Reeling from the sensory overload of modernity,"says the first one.


There's a woman too.  "But surely, at a symbolic level, Jack's the child sacrifice," she says, "cemented into the foundations to placate the spirits."


Huh, indeed.  This is just so much psychobabble -and that is being polite.  Jack knows what is real in this world, what matters, far better than any of these so-called experts.  When he asks why he can't see Ma, now sick in hospital she tells him

"They're still fiddling with my dosage, trying to figure out what I need."

To which Jack's response is

Ma, she needs me.  Can't she figure that out.

All you need is love.

Please read this book.


  1. I've been avoiding Room as well: I wasn't wild about the two other Emma Donoghue books I read, which made me skeptical about the hype surrounding this one--with a premise so risky, I figure only a really strong writer could pull it off. And I've been so disappointed recently with the Hot-Hyped-Books I've bought, at least compared to the praise they've gotten (Goon Squad, Skippy Dies...). If Room gets your endorsement too, though, that certainly makes me more interested.

  2. I tried to read this once and then tried to listen to it, but I just can't seem to get past the language. I know the narrator is just a child, but it just wouldn't flow for me. I need to try and read more as I think if I could get into the story itself and beyond the language I would probably like it. It seems to be universally lauded, so I think I must not be trying hard enough.

  3. I'm SO GLAD you were hooked by this. It's such a compulsive read - the middle 3/5 were unputdownable. Interested by your focus on the narrative voice - do you enjoy books with unreliable narrators? Thanks for pulling out the salient philosophical points - I remember these from the text but they did not jump at me the way they grabbed your attention.

  4. Wow. That's the best endorsement I've read yet for this book. Just moved it up the TBR pile. Have you come across Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant? It made several best of lists for 2010, but I had not gotten around to reading it in spite of all the good reviews. I'm now in the middle of it and in love! Yes, some of the chapters are narrated by a tortoise, but don't hold that against it.

  5. So it lives up to the hype then? Good to know. I had determined not to read it because I've got this perverse idea that if a book is popular and everyone is raving about it that it can't really be any good.

  6. Rohan, I haven't read anything else by her, so I don't know how this compares. I should say that the group were not all in favour of the book. One member thought it trite.

    Danielle, I'm not sure that it would work for me as an audiobook. I suspect that how you 'hear' Jack's voice is very personal.

    RFT, I think it depends on why they are being unreliable. If they can't bear to live with the memory of what they are narrating I'm reasonably sympathetic. If they are self-serving then no. I'm likely to get irritated with the character and have difficulty finishing the book.

    Nathalie, no, I haven't come across the Grant, although I'm just off to look for it. Remember, I ran a school library and lectured in Children's Literature for decades. Talking tortoises are nothing new to me:) After a book entitled 'Celery Stalks at Midnight' you can accept just about anything.

    Stefanie, I did the same thing years ago with 'Watership Down'. It taught me a lesson. Sometimes a good book is a good book. Mind you, that philosophy has led me to read some shockers in my time as well!

  7. I bought Room a few months ago, but haven't gotten around to reading it yet... I think I've been putting it off too. I really should get around to it!

  8. Annie - hear hear! I loved the book, and really enjoyed your review including the philosophical slant. I almost always enjoy an unreliable narrator - even if they're being selfserving I like the feeling that the author is tipping us the wink to see through them...

  9. Upon opening this book you are thrust into the world of a five-year-old. Jack narrates this story through the eyes of an innocent child. At first it is a struggle to get into character but within a few pages the transport from adulthood back to childhood is complete. It must be quite a challenge to write from this perspective, yet Donoghue masters it flawlessly.
    Jack is an energetic, inquisitive and creative five-year-old. Other than being particularly bright, he is the average child. Yet his surroundings are anything but typical. Jack and his mother live locked within a 12 by 12 foot room. Knowing no different, Jack is quite content in his singular world with his mother, a small television, his snake friend made from egg shells and his Sunday treats. His mother, however, knows Room to be a life-draining prison, one they must escape before it smothers them both.