Room, by Emma Donoghue - A Review
Ma and Jack live together in Room, which they never leave. With them, there is Wardrobe – where Jack sleeps sometimes at night – Bed, Stove, Bath, Rug and Skylight – through which they glimpse at the weather Outside. Jack has just turned 5, and Ma bakes him the wonderfulest cake. Bars of chocolate, saved from the Sundaytreats of a couple of weeks ago, replace the unavailable candles. "You should have asked (Old Nick) for candles for Sundaytreat”, complains Jack. Sure, Old Nick might have brung them candles instead of the requested painkillers Ma needs badly for her rotten teeth.
As we progress along Jack’s account of their daily routine - their plays and rituals, what they watch on TV, the kinds of food they eat, the 5 books they reread endlessly - we slowly realize with horror the situation they’re in. Ma was kidnapped at the age of 19 (she’s 26 now) and has been kept locked in a shed in the backyard of some house in America ever since. Jack was born there. Old Nick, her captor, pays Ma frequent visits in the evenings, where he makes the bed creak hundreds of times till he makes that gaspy sound and stops, according to Jack, who is forced to sleep in Wardrobe those evenings. The reader understands that’s when Ma is being repeatedly raped. Jack is actually the result of one these attacks.
On some weekends, Old Nick brings them some special foods and other things they humbly request: these are Sundaytreats. But these are always cheap stuff and not nearly enough to keep them nourished and healthy. Life is harsh in Room. But Jack loves it – he has never known any other kind of life after all. He has Ma, Dora the Explorer on TV and the 5 books that live on Shelf. Jack and Ma have named their whole universe. And every little object is personified and loved.
Sometimes Ma takes a couple of strong painkillers and is gone for a day or two. That’s when she lies in Bed silently and sleeps most of the time. Jack does not like the days when Ma is gone. But he knows he is not supposed to disturb her on these occasions. He does everything alone then: prepares his own breakfast, cleans Room, cooks dinner, until the effect of the pills wears off and Ma is back again.
The first part of this thrilling and disturbing novel focuses on their life in Room. Halfway through the book, they managed to escape by devising a clever plot, which must be one of the most heroic deeds ever performed by a 5-year-old in realistic literature. The second part of the book deals with Jack’s adaptation to the Outside. The world beyond his beloved Room. He will have to cope with the overwhelming reality of modern life, and learn to differentiate what was only in TV and what is real.
The whole story is told through Jack’s perspective: the language is one of highest points of the book. The reader has to navigate his truncated grammar, his creative and sometimes faulty vocabulary, and accommodate the concrete ways in which a five-year-old boy who spent all his life in a cramped compartment interprets the world and the strange people around – not unlike Alice in Wonderland, one of his favorite books.
Besides the straightforward story it tells, Room, the novel, lends itself to layers of other meanings. In an afterword to the story, the author tells us that readers have contacted her sharing their own insights, which include, among other things, thinking of the book as a manifesto for attachment parenting, a confirmation of the Christian home-schooling, a spit in the face of patriarchy or a political allegory of life in Iran or China.
Having been brought up by a widowed mother myself, it was not hard for me to identify with the closeness between mother and son in the novel, which may appear somewhat exaggerated to Outsiders (people who live out of Room). The strongest point of the book, in my opinion, is the clear depiction of how a mother’s love and devotion to her kid in early childhood can mean everything to him: a little boy will find in his mother a complete source of pleasure and happiness. Also, limited material resources and a confined space to live in will never constrain the power of imagination, stimulated by storytelling, be it conveyed orally or from reading books (and even through watching a little bit of TV, because too much of it rots our brains, according to Ma).
Note: during the last Golden Globes on Jan 10th, Brie Larson, who plays Ma (we never get to know the character’s two other names) in the movie based on the book, won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture – Drama.