Note to self: do not start a horribly depressing book right before going to bed. That was the lesson I learnt the hard way last night when I picked up Room, by Emma Donoghue. Room is one of those books that have been kicking around on the featured tables at Chapters for more than a year, but it wasn’t until it was released in pocket paper-back that I took an interest. While I might not have been able to drop off to sleep last night because of it, it is an incredible poignant and interesting read.
Sadly enough, the plot of Room is one that is familiar to anyone with access to the 24 hour new cycle. Room tells the story of Jack and his Ma. When the story picks up, Jack has just turned five and is happy to celebrate his big day. Very quickly, it becomes apparent that there’s little to celebrate. In fact, the room in which Jack and his mother live is only 11 feet by 11 feet. Jack has never been outside. Jack’s mother hasn’t been outside since she was kidnapped and locked in it. Jack’s father (and captor) still visits regularly and is still assaulting Jack’s mother. While Jack doesn’t understand quite what makes the bed creak on nights Old Nick is visiting, he does understand the bruises on his Ma’s neck.
There are lots of things Jack doesn’t understand, like how the TV shows things that are real. To him, the Outside is a concept that has never been fully explained. His only friends are the cartoon characters he watches on TV (though he only sees about an hour of television a day). The fact that a five year old can read, write and do math isn’t odd to him – all he and Ma can do all day is read from the ten books Old Nick has brought them, do calisthenics, and play games with the odds and ends you can collect while living in a box. None of this seems odd to him – it’s the only life he’s ever known. His mother, however, is an intelligent woman who’s been held captive for eight years, and she’s had enough.
What’s so heart breaking about this story is that, while it is told from the point of view of Jack, the adult that’s reading it knows more about what is going on around him than he does. To him, Old Nick is just the man that comes after 9pm, so he has to be hiding in the wardrobe by then; to the reader, he’s the sexual sadist who stalked a woman, imprisoned her in a small room, and raped her regularly. To Jack, having breakfast between 7 and 8, lunch between 12 and 1, and dinner between 5 and 6 is just his routine; to the reader, it’s clear that these are delineations that have been imposed on the day by his mother to keep herself sane. To Jack, having five picture books is an inconvenience, but they’re his friends so he loves them; to the reader, it’s clearly an additional level of torture imposed by Old Nick on the young college student he abducted and the son she’s encouraged to be clever. None of this sits well on the heart, and all of it sits like a load-stone in the gut as you read it. And all of it is (sadly) believable.
Donoghue has crafted a remarkably intricate world. My one complaint is in the character of Jack. I don’t think adults can effectively write the voice of a child, let alone such a small child. True, I don’t have kids of my own, and I haven’t spent a lot of time with them, but it seems to me that Donoghue has attributed a lot of grown-up qualities to a five year old boy with an 11 by 11 world view. While many of the characteristics Jack does display are very young, every so often Donoghue strays into what looks to me to be the behaviours of an eight to ten year old, if not older. It’s splitting hairs, I know, but I’ve yet to find an author that can provide a child’s voice effectively.
Final verdict? Read Room if you don’t have children. I think if you had kids, you’re asking for trouble in reading it. For me, it broke my heart and kept me awake and nauseous last nigh – I can only imaging what this would do to the composure of a mother. Donoghue is to be applauded for crafting such a believable and poignant read, but I think the world could probably do with fewer examples of these cases, even if this is only a fictionalized story.