by Rio Liang
I think by now we’ve all heard the premise of Emma Donoghue’s Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel, “Room.” Shortly after his fifth birthday, a precocious boy named Jack learns from his mother, known only as “Ma,” that there is an entire world outside the reinforced garden shed they have both been forced to live in by a man known only as “Old Nick.” This dungeon-like “Room” is the only home Jack has ever known; it was where he was born. And not having anything else to compare it with (aside from the “imaginary” world he sees through the TV) he is content with daily life in it. But after his Ma, who has long sought after seven years to escape captivity since being kidnapped at the age of 19, orchestrates a plan to free them both, Jack has to adjust to the “Outside” and its many chaoses.
First off, I read the suspenseful first half of “Room” in almost one sitting, eager to see the mother and child dodge further tragedy and attain freedom. That Donoghue spares her characters continued torture halfway through allows the novel to shift in focus from the almost too-big premise of the imprisonment, to the silent conflicts (ah, literary fiction) of life after the ordeal. The pace at which I read the second half, devoted to the aftermath of the escape, was expectedly slower, though that is not necessarily a pejorative.
I could imagine going insane after reading ~300 pages of a novel written in the voice of a five-year-old. But only at several points did I feel the narrative too cutesy or contrived, and even then only fleetingly. Having once myself taught kindergarteners, Donoghue’s Jack is familiar and his voice genuine. He speaks with that funny (to adults) and endearing literal interpretation of the world common in children his age. (As an aside, knowing Donoghue, I initially imagined the boy narrating with an Irish brogue, only to realize shortly markers of American culture, i.e. Dora the Explorer, Lady Gaga).
I especially liked the mythology Jack has concocted for his world. One in which sunny days are when “God’s yellow face” makes an appearance and rainy days or nighttime are when God doesn’t come out; in which Sink, Toilet, Wardrobe, and Rug are not just proper nouns but friends of Jack’s. In his reverse fairy tale life, reality is not real to him; real things like ice cream only exist on TV (in fact, he sees life through the lens of television; staying quiet to him means “being on mute,” while going to sleep is “being switched off”). The cognitive dissonance he feels from finding out there is a world outside the 11×11 Room he calls home is so psychologically intriguing; it’s especially ironic when after all those years of watching the rest of the world on TV, he sees himself on a news channel (what he refers to cutely as a “planet”) after his and his Ma’s escape makes the headlines.
Ma, the other survivor of the ordeal, is intriguing for the sad reality of the world she represents; whereas Jack can only view the world through a lens of naivete, his mother simply has become too casehardened by her experience to view it with such innocence. She is a tragic figure (a victim of kidnapping and rape) whose tragedy is hidden largely from her son’s view; the details about her that surface over time–her stillborn baby that preceded Jack; the abortion at 18–further cement for us what Jack can’t properly process at his age. The stories she tells him, such as the one about the mermaid trapped in a cottage by a fisherman and who jumps into sea with her baby, are tinged with a sadness he can only view as innocuous. This unknowing hopefulness in her son is, ironically, her only anchor to the world through all the years of maddening isolation. Jack’s wondrous voice would make one think this book a through-and-through delight were it not for the constant reminders of the darkness of the world, such as when Jack counts the squeaks from the bed while Old Nick is raping his Ma, or when greedy paparazzi and TV personalities capitalize on the sensationalism of Jack’s and his Ma’s story.
Overall, “Room” is an engaging read and, when not utterly devastating, absolutely delightful. I suppose this following bit of corny wordplay has been used before, but it bears repeating: It’s absolutely imperative that one possess a “Room” of one’s own. (Ha!). Definitely get your hands on a copy soon.