I picked up Irish author Emma Donoghue’s acclaimed Room after spending the better part of an hour absorbed in the Wikipedia entries for Jaycee Dugard and Elisabeth Fritzl, the latter of whom was imprisoned at the age of 18 in an 11-by-11-foot room by her biological father in the family’s basement. She spent 24 years in captivity and bore seven children by her father, one of whom died of respiratory failure when he was 3 days old. Jaycee Dugard’s story, as most everybody knows, is only slightly less tragic; she was kidnapped in 1991 by a convicted sex offender and was finally rescued in 2009. Her memoir, A Stolen Life, was published last week and has topped the bestseller lists. Room is highly reminiscent of these tragedies—though Donoghue says she did not base her novel on either—and is narrated by a five-year-old boy, Jack, who has spent his entire life locked in a soundproofed, steel-reinforced garden shed. His mother, whom we know only as Ma, was kidnapped by the man they call Old Nick two years before her son’s birth, and she has not seen the outside world since. Needless to say, Old Nick is Jack’s father.
Room is so absorbing that, no joke, I transferred it onto my work computer and spent an entire afternoon finishing the second half of the novel (all those rumors you hear about nobody at the UN doing any work, even the interns, are apparently true). I was short of breath at times, and dizzy when I stood up; though I was initially skeptical of the”unreliable child narrator” premise, Jack’s voice ended up making the book feel more immediate than I’d ever imagined.
Jack, as reviews have pointed out, is a startlingly lovable child; he’s not too cutesy, naive or “overly darling.” Rather, he seems extremely well-adjusted to the world around him, which is of course miniscule. Household objects are proper nouns: Rug, Bed, Wardrobe (where he sleeps), Skylight, Floor, Room. Everything outside Room is Outside. The two have a television (which his mother worries may impede his intellectual development) and several books, but for Jack, everything outside his immediate surroundings are nothing more than fantasies, and Ma does not disabuse him of this perception. After all, it’s better than the alternative, the reality of which Jack can’t quite grasp even as it’s slowly revealed to him.
It may be giving too much away to reveal that the two eventually get out of their prison, but I was aware of that plot twist from the very beginning, and it made no difference to my enjoyment. In fact, watching Ma and Jack adjust to the world outside Room was arguably the most interesting part of the book; again, as reviews have mentioned, the-Room-as-World premise would have gotten decidedly tired had it been employed for more than half the story. On the Outside, we are privy only to the adult conversations Jack himself overhears, and I was pleasantly surprised that Donoghue decided to keep the entire novel grounded in Jack’s consciousness, as opposed to, say, switching to Ma’s perspective once the world opened up. The strictness of the narrative—we see the world through Jack’s eyes, and no others’—distinguishes Room from merely a dramatic retelling of “the Elisabeth Fritzl story.” The book is a truly sophisticated psychological exploration of circumstances that may not be entirely unique, but certainly highly unusual. It’s also more than a little impressive how well Donoghue is able to get into the head of a five-year-old child, albeit a very intelligent, brave one; her research was clearly meticulous, as she attests to in the “Q-and-A with the author” that’s provided in the back of book-club editions. I recommend Room unequivocally; it’s creative, it’s haunting, and it’s just…well, I’ll put it this way: After you read it, you feel like, this is what reading novels is all about. The feeling’s ineffable, it doesn’t come along very often, and it should be treasured.
Read an excerpt here.