Updated on February 4, 2016
4. ‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue
If you can read Room by Emma Donoghue in one sitting, do it. It’s easy to do – the book is simple to read and very fast-paced – and it makes for a truly intense ride. I managed it in two sittings and I came out of it feeling emotionally wrung out (in a good way).
You’ve probably already heard the concept of Room (it’s unavoidable at the moment since the film came out last year), but just in case you haven’t: this book is about a woman and her son who live in a single room. The story is told from the perspective of Jack, the little boy, who has just turned five and who has lived his whole life in Room. They have a television, but Jack believes that everything he sees on it is on different planets that he can never visit. Jack’s mother hasn’t been in Room her whole life; she’s been here for seven years and she’s looking for a way to escape. In the meantime she does her best to keep Jack healthy, happy and educated, and to keep him away from Old Nick, who brings them food and other supplies, and only comes at night.
This book creates atmosphere impeccably. Even though we are seeing through the eyes of a boy who has only ever known Room – and who is perfectly content there – you really really feel the claustrophobia of living in a single room. He refers to their possessions with pronouns – they eat at Table, they sleep in Bed, he takes care of Plant – because he has only ever known one example of these things. Why would you say ‘a chair’ if you believe there’s only one? I felt like crawling up the walls as Jack described how his mother breaks up the day into manageable segments, and how she limits TV time and insists on exercise. You’re seeing a woman’s techniques for staving off insanity, through the eyes of an innocent child. I honestly felt like the walls were closing in.
And then there is the bid for freedom (I don’t consider that a spoiler – no book about a locked room avoids the bid for freedom). That was just… Essentially Donoghue creates strong and lasting sympathy for her two protagonists, so when you see them risking their lives to escape, you feel all the fear and panic they do. My heart was racing. As for the aftermath of the bid for freedom, that was intense in a whole different way. I don’t want to give too much away, but the second half of the book becomes a rather different (but no less excellent) story. In many ways it’s even more heartbreaking than the first half, because by then Jack’s mother has let slip that she hates Room and the pair, who have been so close, begin to diverge from each other.
I must talk more about the characters. Donoghue does an excellent job of writing from the perspective of a five-year-old. She put some brilliant childish inflections into her writing, and captured Jack’s view of the world was so perfectly that at no point did I see the mask slipping. It felt like I was in Jack’s head all the way through. And, of course, I have to mention the mother. She is an amazing character, not least because she has managed to transform her prison into a place of comfort and safety for her son. Room is her living nightmare, but it his home.
I really can’t fault this book. It had me gripped from the first page and kept that same focus all the way through. Ultimately it did something not many books manage to do: it turned off my inner critic and just made me feel.
“Stories are a different kind of true.”
Have you read this book or seen the film? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.