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Book Review: Room by Emma Donoghue

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Room by Emma Donoghue, was on the short list for the 2010 Mann Booker Prize and has great buzz. All this is for good reason; it is fantastic — at once charming, horrifying, and uplifting. It is also riveting; like others, I could hardly put the book down. 

For those who haven’t heard the premise: Room is told from the point of view of Jack, a five-year-old boy who has grown up locked in a fortified garden shed where his mother, kidnapped at 19, has been held and repeatedly raped for seven years. Room tells the story of their life inside, the only place Jack has ever known, and their adjustment to the outside world once they are free.

Seen from the point of view of a child with access to little else besides his mother, a few books, and a TV, the room takes on a life of its own. Everything it is comprised of is nearly alive to Jack, who uses the words for inanimate objects as proper names and assigns everything a gender (Rug and Wardrobe are shes, while Watch and Trash are hes). Jack’s Ma does her best to shield him, never letting her captor get a good look at him and telling him the different channels on TV are actually planets in Outer Space.

Having Jack appears to keep Ma mostly sane. Although she has days of being “gone,” when she doesn’t get out of Bed and Jack must fend for himself, Jack’s presence gives her purpose and keeps her occupied, as she spends hours playing with him and reading to him. 

Room continues in Jack’s voice after he and Ma make their Great Escape and have to deal with living outside of Room. Ms. Donoghue takes the opportunity to critique modern celebrity culture as Ma struggles with the media as well as her readjustment. Jack must contend with all the mind-blowing revelations he is subjected to in a short time (that Outer Space and all the hes and shes he’s seen on TV are actually real), and he does so with great aplomb.

Would a five-year-old talk like Jack does and be able to adjust to such rapid change? I am no judge, but Jack’s voice sounds genuine and perfectly childlike, and it is plausible that such a young child would, out of necessity, deal with whatever life bestows. Could a garden shed be a prison without escape? I found that, too, to be believable, the way it is described. 

Room may be a story with a difficult premise, but it is a book with great heart. It is well-worth the undoubtedly short time it will take to read.

About Nancy Fontaine

Nancy Fontaine is a librarian and freelance writer living in New Hampshire with her husband, two cats, and every four years during presidential primary season, the national press.