Room, Emma Donoghue‘s heavily-garlanded novel, is a captivating, uplifting story well worth the plaudits and glowing reviews bestowed on it.
The tale is narrated more or less exclusively by Jack, who turns five years old at the start of the book and whose whole experience of the world is confined to the locked room which he shares with his mother and to the powers of his own imagination, sparked by the characters on his TV and – more importantly – to the spirited games and routines which he shares with her. It is through his eyes that we see the world and the accepting approach is that of a small boy (we learn little, for example, of physical appearances). Evidently, some prisons are of the mind and Jack is never imprisoned, despite the insular situation in which the tale takes place. The book does not suffer from claustrophobia; Jack is intelligent, keen to learn and to show his learning, and well-adjusted, even if slightly on the autistic spectrum – yet evidently, as is made clear from the beginning, he is still just a little boy. The bond between Jack and his mother is evidently a more significant one than most as a result of their confined surroundings, but it is never a suffocating one and there are frequently evident tensions between them, while the mother is prone to convincing periods of depression. There is a shift in pace in the latter sections of the book which creates a feeling of drag and a certain loss of momentum but the effect, ultimately, is to highlight the bond between Jack and his mother. And it is clear that the end of the novel is not The End.
Despite the evident difficulties the author has created for herself, the tale is convincing in most aspects of its development (a small quibble is that Facebook wasn’t around in 2003, despite the quality of the joke inspiring the reference – this will be less and less obvious to future readers but that shouldn’t prevent its correction now; while we might question the easy nature with which Jack lets some things go as the novel winds to its conclusion). It is also confidently told. Through Jack’s precociousness, Donoghue manages to get in some sharp observations about societal developments yet these only rarely seem forced or portray him as mature beyond his years. Despite the subject matter, this is not a harrowing tale but there are moments of discomfort – as indeed there should be if the work is to convince.
Perhaps above all, this is a feminist novel at both the surface level – in terms of the strength of character and the sheer ingenuity of Jack’s mother – and in terms of the development of the plot, with an interesting cast on the cash-sex nexus and, in modern terms, the absence of fathers from most aspects of domestic life (though it is never anti-male). Indeed, Donoghue has created a uniquely original voice in Jack and a memorable, gripping novel with well-adjudged character portrayal – itself a major achievement, given the challenging setting – and of the plot. All in all, a triumph.