Summer is great for easy reads, but every now and then it’s good to pick up something really thought-provoking; Emma Donoghue’s Room is a perfect choice for that.
I’d been meaning to read this book for years, and finally I walked past it on the library shelf and decided it was time to pick it up. It’s so captivating that I read it in three days even though there were several times I had to put the book down just to take it all in. Room is definitely the sort of book that leaves you wondering about the state of humanity and the strength that people can summon to cope with the impossible. As kids, we’re warned about Stranger Danger, but it never seems like something that could happen to you–but then there are stories like Room that remind us anything can happen, to anyone.
About the book: Five year-old Jack has lived all of his life locked in the single room of an old garden shed with his mother, who was kidnapped from college about seven years before the book’s opening. The room is soundproofed, has a single skylight, is lined with cork squares, and was built with lengths of chain link fencing inside the walls and even under the floor. Their captor is a mean, selfish man who abuses Jack’s mother, spends very little money on their care, and overpowers them easily. Jack’s Ma allows very little contact between Jack and the kidnapper Jack refers to as Old Nick–it’s the one thing she asks, to keep Jack to herself. She and Jack spend their days keeping their one room tidy, exercising their bodies and minds as much as possible, and telling stories. When Jack turns five, his mother decides it’s time to share the most important story of all with him: the truth about the outside world.
” ‘I told you, it’s not TV. It’s the real world, you wouldn’t believe how big it is.’ Her arms shoot out, she’s pointing at all the walls. ‘Room’s only a tiny stinky piece of it.’… ‘I wouldn’t lie to you about this,’ Ma says while I’m slurping the juice. ‘I couldn’t tell you before, because you were too small to understand, so I guess I was sort of lying to you then. But now you’re five, I think you can understand.’ “
Jack has a hard time understanding and believing in the outside world. All he’s ever known is life between the four walls of Room where he shares everything with his mother and hides at night in Wardrobe from Old Nick, the only visitor he’s ever known.
Narrated by the young Jack, Room is described as a home, a safe place. Outside, everything is unknown and scary. Everything in Room has a name and a story, including Meltedy Spoon, Spaghetti Mobile, and Rug. Jack was born on Rug, so that’s one of his favorites. Sometimes Jack’s perspective is too limited, but dialogue fills in the gaps. He’s a smart child, with a million questions and an adorable thought process:
“The sea’s real, I’m just remembering. It’s all real in Outside, everything there is, because I saw the airplane in the blue between the clouds. Ma and me can’t go there because we don’t know the secret code, but it’s real all the same. 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.”
Through Jack’s eyes, we see his mother’s story, as well. She’s very open and honest with him about her life, and she’s been his sole companion for so long that he’s finely attuned to her mannerisms and knows all of her stories by heart. He’s her sounding board, her reason to keep going, and everything else. Because this is primarily Jack’s story, his mother remains unnamed, referred to only as Ma by her son, who is shocked to learn that she has other names, as well. Even when he finally hears about her life before Room, she is first and foremost Jack’s mother.
” ‘Listen, Jack. Are you listening?’ / ‘I’m always listening.’ / ‘We have to get out of here.’ / I stare at her. / ‘And we have to do it all by ourselves.’ / But she said we were like in a book, how do people in a book escape from it? / ‘We need to figure out a plan.’ Her voice is all high. / ‘Like what?’ / ‘I don’t know, do I? I’ve been trying to think of one for seven years.’ “
For Jack’s mother, escape is vital. She feels caged, helpless, and claustrophobic. She knows Jack would be better off growing up outside, but she will need his help to escape and she needs to time her attempt so that he’s not too young to understand but not too old that he’ll be irreversibly damaged from the years he’s lost inside Room. Being captives keeps them close, but has no other benefits–and yet, perhaps it’s Outside that poses the greatest threats to Jack. Having never been exposed to ordinary aspects of life, like weather, animals, other children, or fire, the world is a dangerous place for him. He’s never even had a pair of shoes. Maybe he doesn’t even want to escape.
Something I didn’t like: The door to Room is locked with a key code which only Old Nick knows. Jack mentions once that he and his mother play a game that involves pushing random numbers into the keypad, but this only comes up once and Jack and his mother seem to spend very little time trying to guess the code. They try screaming toward the skylight to attract attention, and Jack’s mother switches the lamp on and off in the dead of night to try sending an SOS signal, but for as badly as she wants to escape it’s hard to believe she hasn’t spent every one of those seven days fiddling with the keypad, watching Old Nick’s hand when he presses the buttons, and counting the number of digits he enters. The keypad is the obstacle between her and freedom, but the only times she talks about it are to say she doesn’t know the code and can’t convince Old Nick to tell her. A ton of combinations could be tried in the space of seven years. Even if she tries every day and still can’t figure it out, it’s a little disappointing that the keypad isn’t mentioned more often or with more significance.
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Room is an incredibly powerful story about coping in times of distress, raising a child, and fighting against the odds. It leaves the reader thinking about the pros and cons of modern culture, the often-overlooked dangers of our world, and the choices and challenges of motherhood. I wished Donoghue had spent more of the book describing regular days in Room–even after all of its features and routines had been laid out, I think the writing could have been used to convey the sense of monotony and claustrophobia that must plague Jack’s mother to add even more tension to her desire and plans to escape. A certain amount of the horror and difficulty of captivity in a small locked room is inherent in the very idea of the story’s premise, and Jack isn’t the one who feels the urge to flee, but Jack must be able to see how uncomfortable his mother is in Room and make a greater point of it. Still, even with the full impact of Room reserved for the end of the story, it’s a bone-chilling feeling to imagine what being kidnapped might feel like, and this book definitely makes an impact.
- Flowers in the Attic by V. C. Andrews is an even-creepier book about captivity. In this one, there are four children who are locked away by their mother and grandmother, presumably to keep them safe and help secure funds for their futures, but months pass and they discover horrible secrets about the family that leave them dying to escape.
- If reading from the stalker’s perspective interests you, check out Caroline Kepnes’ novel, You, which you can find my review of here. Joe is a young man with a skewed view of reality, but you may occasionally find yourself sympathizing with him against all odds.
What’s next: I’m currently reading The Secret History by Donna Tart. It’s a great book about a young man who goes off to college and gets mixed up in an elite society when he tries to sign up for a Greek class. The other five students in the Greek program become his close friends, but Richard soon learns that they’re keeping a terrible secret, and something even worse looms ahead–and this time, Richard will be involved. Stay tuned to learn more about the mysterious lives of the strangest Greek class to ever exist.
Books are the only acceptable captors. Stay safe,
The Literary Elephant