ROOM – EMMA DONOGHUE
On the first page of Room protagonist Jack celebrates his fifth birthday. His mother has not been able to buy him a present, because she has been locked in a soundproof garden shed for the past seven years. Still in chapter one, I learn about Old Nick, the man responsible for abducting Jack’s mother and continually raping her, and Jack’s father. I wonder if it is wise to pursue reading this horrifying story, inspired by the Fritzl and Kampusch cases. But when I carry on, I begin to realise that Room is anything but a cruel thriller exploiting the real suffering caused by such kidnapping cases. It is a novel about the relationship between parent and child and the importance of language and storytelling within this relationship.
Five-year-old Jack is the narrator of Room and it is mostly this remarkable narrative that saves the book from becoming an obscene horror story. For the reader (and his mother), his existence as captive is horrifying, but for Jack it simply is. Because he has no experience of the outside world, he lacks any other frame of reference, and therefore Room is neither small nor a prison from Jack’s perspective. Jack names the objects standing in ‘Room’ as friends: Plant, Skylight, Rug for example. While reading the book, I tend to think of them too as having larger proportions than the actual 12-foot-square space would permit. As a result, by viewing everything through the little boy’s eyes, the prison cell is turned into a bearable and even liveable place.
Also, any character description or history of kidnapper ‘Old Nick’ is absent. He remains nameless and storyless throughout the book and his character does not develop beyond the initial portrayal of fairy-tale-type villain. And once he is arrested in the second part of the book, he disappears. This fact also makes clear that writer Donoghue wanted to focus on love between mother and child, although in rather extreme circumstances.
These extreme circumstances make it possible to intensify and test a relationship that is already difficult under normal circumstances. Even though it is clear that mother and child love each other there are problems, such as Jack’s frustration when his mother is unwilling to answer his questions and her anger when Jack demands she tell the story about ‘Dylan the Digger’ again. Other issues include health – Jack has to eat his vegetables and the television time is limited – and education. Jack’s mother makes sure he develops as normal as possible by reading him stories and trying to explain the outside world to him. But she only has her own nineteen years of experience and her own habits and knowledge of family life. Jack and ‘Ma’ have their private world and its own language of codes and in-jokes. What is so deeply touching about Room is recognising that this must be what makes a natural parent-child relationship.
In the second part of the book Jack and his mother manage to escape from the garden shed and the setting is moved to the outside world. With extreme care and great skill, Donoghue describes how Jack copes with the outside world. But the novel loses a lot of its original beauty. Different voices and settings distract from the novel’s focus on the parent-child relationship and the novel becomes more like a thriller.