Review: Room by Emma Donoghue

I’ve been reading a book a day this week to chip away at my queue. Emma Donoghue’s Room was next, and there are two things you should know before reading: 1) It’s written from the perspective of a five-year-old boy; 2) The woman (Ma) is being held in the room as a sexual prisoner. I mention the first caveat because the incessant voice of a five-year-old child can become tiresome long before the 321st page; the second, because it’s a disturbing element and something you should know going in.

When the story begins, Jack has just turned five. He was born in the room and has never been out of it. This room is a notch above a plain cell as it’s outfitted with a bed, television, toilet, kitchenette, table, and wardrobe. To make his life simpler, his mother tells him that only the contents of their room are real and that everything else is TV. This raises some complications for Jack since Old Nick routinely visits his mother and brings their supply of food, but Jack balances this out in his head:

Women aren’t real like Ma is, and boys and girls not either. Men aren’t real except Old Nick, and I’m not actually sure if he’s real for real. Maybe half? He brings groceries and Sundaytreat and disappears the trash, but he’s not human like us. He only happens in the night, like bats. Maybe Door makes him up with a beep beep and the air changes. I think Ma doesn’t like to talk about him in case he gets realer. (18)

Jack makes proper nouns of the room’s contents. I know a lot of people listen to audiobooks, but I don’t think this effect would work as well in an audio format. Saying “Maybe Door makes him up” sounds like bad English until you see it in print and realize that “Door” is essentially a name. Jack has no one except his mother and tends to personify whatever is around, even assigning genders to the room’s contents. At times, his narration is clever and funny, but when he is feeling whiny or petulant, his voice becomes one of the most irksome ever penned. It’s a trade-off. The biggest drawback to this perspective is that the reader begins to crave a more adult perspective to explain the situation and flesh out characters. By the end, Ma’s development is more interesting than Jack’s, but the reader is robbed of any real insight into her character because Jack does not understand the situation.

Also, I have a peeve with some of the word choices in this book. (Yes, I’m aware this is a minor, minor peeve.) Jack still breastfeeds at the age of five. Since they’re confined to the room and not eating the best foods, this seems a practical decision on Ma’s part for the extra nutrition. BUT Jack refers to this as “getting some” and there is something really creepy about a little kid lifting up his ma’s shirt to “get some”. Is there not another phrase, idiom, etc. that could have been used? Jack uses proper names for anatomy so this euphemism feels out of place, especially when it’s a euphemism that usually refers to getting laid. This would have been less noticeable if it didn’t come up a few dozen times.

I’m hoping to not make a habit of this, but MINOR SPOILERS below:

There’s an escape scene, and then Ma and Jack are free. This happens around the midway point of the novel. I say this is a minor spoiler, because it’s telegraphed early. On the outside, Ma is quickly outpaced by Jack when adjusting to the new world. Jack is like a toddler, learning everything for the first time and the doctors believe he won’t remember much of their ordeal when he’s older. As for Ma, she has to re-enter the world after being gone for seven years (she was kidnapped at the age of 19). While Jack is thrilled with nearly every new discovery and coping with separation anxiety from his mother, his mother’s condition seems much deeper and complex. The reader can’t help wondering how she’s doing, but Jack can only parrot snippets of his mother’s conversations with doctors or give subject lines for their sessions. This is the point at which he becomes a tiresome narrator: He is an impediment to character development.

Finally, when his mother does speak at a press conference, it’s an incredibly stilted and uncomfortable scene. Suddenly, she doesn’t sound like herself. She starts quoting the same statistics given by Emma Donoghue in interviews about the research behind this book:

“All this reverential—I’m not a saint.” Ma’s voice is getting loud again. “I wish people would stop treating us like we’re the only ones who ever lived through something terrible. I’ve been finding stuff on the Internet like you wouldn’t believe.”
“Other cases like yours?”
“Yeah, but not just—I mean, of course when I woke up in that shed, I thought nobody’d ever had it as bad as me. But the thing is, slavery’s not a new invention. And solitary confinement—did you know, in America we’ve got more than 25,000 prisoners in isolation cells? Some of them for more than twenty years.” Her hand is pointing at the puffy-hair woman. “As for kids—there’s places where babies lie in orphanages five to a cot with pacifiers taped into their mouths, kids getting raped by Daddy every night, kids in prisons, whatever, making carpets til they go blind—” (236)

She raises an excellent point, but this scene doesn’t work in context. And not just because of Donoghue’s interview. The reason the whole interview scene rings false is that the interviewer (the puffy-hair woman) doesn’t ask follow-ups. She says “Wonderful” etc., then changes the subject after each of Ma’s answers. It doesn’t feel like an actual interview of any purpose, UNTIL this moment when the puffy-hair woman finally asks a follow-up question. It’s as though Donoghue is setting herself up to run with this point like in her own interviews. She has stopped writing a scene with convincing characters and clumsily dropped in herself. This might be okay, but this is the first and only time Ma talks about her ordeal with an adult where Jack is listening and not causing the conversation to be simplified. This scene feels like the one opportunity to see Ma as more than Jack’s preserver and entertainer, but it devolves into a public service announcement.

Overall: 3.3 (out of 5.0) I’m impressed by the consistency (to the point of irksome repetition) in Jack’s narration. Jack was superbly written, but no one else was.

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