Review by Claire Nurse
Room is the tale of five year old Jack and Ma, held captive by Old Nick in a twelve foot square room which offers only basic amenities and the occasional glimpse of the moon and the sun through the skylight; Room’s only window. Although ‘inspired’ by the case of Joseph Fritzl and the incarceration he inflicted on his daughter Elisabeth and the three children she bore, Emma Donoghue’s seventh novel illuminates the details which media coverage of real life events can only dream to do.Yes, it’s probable that the perspective of a young child’s experience of captivity can never be properly articulated in the way Room pretends. But there is something in Room which is so profoundly emotionally intelligent, that the imaginative point of view of Jack cannot fail to reach its readers as authentic.
The novel is divided into sections, Presents, Unlying, Dying, After, Living. From the first section you could be forgiven for thinking that this novel is a more creative and sophisticated alternative to the tell-all, see-all of the misery-memoir genre. But it isn’t. From beginning to end, the focus of Room isn’t so much in the detail of the abuse of Ma or the deeply affecting psychological and physical damage that imprisonment will impact on Jack; rather, it is a tale of the love between mother and son and the ultimate catch-22 which tests their bond.
Because of Jack’s literate precociousness, there may be occasions when a reader has to suspend disbelief in order to progress with the story. But the pushing aside of scepticism is often required in fiction: the amalgamation and reanimation of body parts for Frankenstein’s monster, for example, is one such case. And though the novel isn’t obscene in its illustration of life in Room, there is the chance Room might catapult some readers too far out of their comfort zone. For example, on occasions Ma slips in and out of catatonic depression, and falls asleep for full 24 hour periods. When Ma is ‘gone’ and Jack has to fend for himself all day and night, it is almost impossible for readers to be unaffected by the potential for harm to him. Our minds go into overdrive: What if Old Nick comes? What will he do to him? What if? What if? What if? These moments are particularly hard when Jack’s admirable but premature patience succumbs to loneliness as he sobs for his ever-sleeping Ma.
There’s a chance that such horrific scenes might put some readers off: who wants to endure the empathic pain that such moments provoke when other authors can offer comedic romps? But the beauty of Room is the way Emma Donoghue turns such macabre beginnings into hope. Without a doubt, Room isn’t wholly depressing, pessimistic, voyeuristic, or too uncomfortable to bear. Instead, the talent of its author ensures the moments where the reader is roughed up by the reality that sadistic, evil psychopaths are out there preying, are offset with the message that the two fundamental components of survival, no matter who the predator, is love and trust; special gifts that every human being is capable of.