November 01, 2010

BOOKS: Room, Emma Donoghue (2010)

Jack has just turned five, and has spent his entire life in Room. In a room, to be precise -- an eleven-foot-square toolshed where his mother has lived for even longer than he has. Ma's been there for seven years, ever since being kidnapped at 19 by the man she calls Old Nick.

So far as Jack knows, Room is all the world there is. Ma does her best to keep him happy and healthy (and for a woman with at most a year of college, her creative parenting and educational techniques would be the envy of many a teacher), but Jack is becoming more and more curious, and better able to spot the inconsistencies in her stories about the world; Ma knows that she can't possibly keep him content with this life for very much longer.

Donoghue pulls off a lot of tricky things in Room. Jack is her narrator, and she creates a convincing (albeit rather intellectually precocious) 5-year-old boy. Letting Jack tell the story also gives her a way to keep the most horrifying aspects of their lives at some distance; Jack is less horrified and frustrated by their life than Ma is, simply because it's all he's ever known. (Letting Ma tell the story would also have meant a much heavier emphasis on the sexual aspects of her confinement, which would make the telling even harder to take.)

Even more impressive, Donoghue makes Jack's view of his world so convincing that (and I suppose this is a mild spoiler) when he finally discovers our world, the world outside Room, it becomes a genuinely terrifying and alien place. And Donoghue finds ways to twist her plot and advance her story that I never would have expected after the first few pages.

Room is spectacularly well written; the final pages are particularly moving, as we see just how much Jack has been changed by events. Donoghue finds humor in this bizarre life, and the relationship between Jack and Ma is completely convincing, a portrait of a mother's ferocious love and determination to raise her child as normally as possible under the most extraordinary of circumstances.

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