Shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize, ROOM tells the story of five-year-old Jack and his Ma, who live in a space measuring 11 feet by 11 feet. Captive for seven years, Jack is born in Room, and Ma teaches him that Room is all there is. They have a TV, but all that’s seen on there isn’t “real for real”, it’s “just TV”. Jack’s entire reality is confined to Room, where the sky measures only as wide as Skylight, the sea isn’t real, and Old Nick (who Jack sees as akin to an unfriendly God) brings them food and “Sundaytreats”. One day Ma “unlies” to Jack, telling him that most of what’s on TV is actually true, and that Room is only a tiny part of a much bigger world. Jack is reluctant, and finds it “hard to remember all the bits, none of them sound very true,” but eventually helps his Ma escape.
Told from Jack’s point of view, the narrating voice of ROOM is both wonderfully strange and very familiar. Jack has the questioning nature and speech patterns of a five year-old, but this familiar voice is put into a very foreign situation. Limited viewpoints are fun for a while, but can usually grow stale unless executed precisely (a’la Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident…) – Emma Donoghue hit the nail on the head – Jack’s is one of the most original voices in recent fiction.
Throughout the novel, the reader and the author look over young Jack’s head and wink at one another in recognition. Jack describes awful things happening to Ma, but in an uncomprehending way. Every weekday, Ma and Jack get to “play Scream”, where they bang things and yell as loud as they can. Jack sees this only as part of what constitutes the world of Room, part of the daily routine. This reader/author cahoot-feeling continues when Jack gets out into the world (only about 50 pages into the novel – not a spoiler!). Donoghue has managed to see the world through incredibly fresh eyes, wondering at things we take for granted. A writer of historical fiction, she has a knack for finding the strange in the familiar, and vice versa, and this works perfectly for Jack.
Both the main characters, Jack and Ma, ring very true. At times you love them both, but at other times they’re just too human to be liked – these are honest characters, not caricatures or thought-experiments. Taking as inspiration the case of Austrian captor Josef Fritzl, Emma Donoghue has thoroughly researched all the implications (both medical and psychological) of such cases. However, these characters are so memorable and true because at their centre, they are simply human.
Tears. I’m warning you now, there will be tears. There will be laughter also, and happiness – ROOM is easily the most moving novel I have read in a long time, one of those ones you want to dive into and never return.
This review originally published in RMIT’s flagship publication, Catalyst, in May 2011.