Room by Emma Donoghue

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Winner of the 2010 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize
Winner of the 20111 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, Canada and Caribbean Region
Winner of the 2010 Salon Book Award
Winner of the 2011 Alex Award
Winner of the 2010 Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year Award
Winner of the 2011 Indies Choice Book Award
Winner of the 2011 WH Smith Paperback of the Year, Galaxy National Book Awards
Shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize
Shortlisted for the 2010 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction
Shortlisted for the 2011 Orange Prize
Longlisted for the 2012 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
Amazon.ca Best Book – 2010
New York Times Notable Book of the Year – 2010
ALA Notable Book – 2011

Room by Irish-Canadian novelist Emma Donoghue was one of the hit novels to come out of the CanLit scene in 2010. As seen above, it was nominated for numerous awards and was on countless “Best Book” lists. For those hiding under a rock, Room tells the story of a five year old boy, Jack, and his mother, known only as Ma, who are held captive in an 11′ x 11′ garden shed and their subsequent escape and rehabilitation. The story is told in the first-person voice of Jack, who despite never knowing anything outside what he affectionately calls Room, is very sharp and observant.

I had high expectations when I started this book; reviews were mostly positive, its award pedigree was impressive, and its concept sounded interesting. The idea of a woman being held captive is hardly an original idea – it is a common story that can been seen at least once a month on Criminal Minds or Law & Order: SVU, but Donoghue takes a novel approach to the story. The story unfolds in what is basically a three act structure – from Jack’s 5th birthday in Room up to and including his escape, Jack’s and Ma’s time in the psychiatric hospital, and finally the time Jack spends alone with his grandparents after his mother tries to commit suicide. Each part has it’s own climax, so structurally the story flows quite quickly and seamlessly and is reminiscent of the style of late modernist CanLit writers like Margaret Laurence.

Room‘s most fascinating element was the narration by the precocious and literal thinking Jack. I often have trepidations about reading fiction narrated by a young child. It is very difficult to capture everything the author is going for without making the child seem like some kind of super genius. Donoghue managed to avoid this for the most part, particularly by making the novel dialogue heavy; while Jack relays the dialogue to us as readers, it is clear he doesn’t understand what is going on in many instances. This is very cleverly done and really adds to Jack’s character development and keeps that psychological forward momentum going.

Thematically, Room is very complex. The element of this novel that seems to get the most attention is the resilience of Jack and this notion of the toughness of children. But there is so much more going on. During the first half of the novel before they escape, I was fascinated by the dichotomy of the pure innocence of Jack juxtaposed with the pure evil of Old Nick and how Ma manages to act as a buffer between the two and avoid any contamination of Jack’s purity. Later in the novel, I was quite taken by the parasitic nature of the news media and the pressure on Ma to tell her story – this reminded me of the interviews of the women held captive by Ariel Castro in Cleveland. An argument is often made that Room is itself a larger metaphor for parenthood itself – the sense of isolation, captivity, dependence, etc – but I don’t like this; I find it too simplistic of an analysis of a very complex novel.

Overall, I liked this book. There were a few points that I had difficulty accepting, most notably Ma’s attempted suicide, but overall I was satisfied by Room. The characters are well developed and realistic, the dialogue is effective and well-written, the portrayal of Jack is incredibly effective, there is no over-writing or extraneous detail, and Donoghue focuses on the parts of this family’s story that should be the focus instead of simply novelizing an episode of Law & Order.

As a post-script, apparently a film adaptation of Room is in the works with the screenplay written by Emma Donoghue herself. I am pessimistic about how well a piece of highly psychological fiction that relies so heavily on a 5 year old’s stream-of-conscious  narration will translate to a visual medium. We’ll just have to wait until it’s released to know I suppose.

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One response

  1. Thanks pleased to have found your thoughtful blog. Looking forward to return visits. Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox (plugged in and ready to play)

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