I was website hopping the other day, and came to the Brooklyn bookstore BookCourt's list of Top 10 fiction bestsellers. On their hardcover list, at #3, was Room by Emma Donoghue, which they call "a perfect example of that book (maybe Wolf Hall is also in this category) that's been a total success without being read by a single person under the age of 30." I am here to attest that I am a person under 30 (though not for long) who has read the book. Not only read it, couldn't put it down. While I was on vacation in Miami. It is that good.
Room was nominated for a Booker Prize, and reading Donoghue's intricately woven story, it is easy to see why. Narrated by the precocious and protected (to say the least) 5-year-old boy Jack, Room is deeply human, moving, and brilliantly executed. Jack's voice carries the story, and does a splendid job of conveying the atrocious and dark reality of his, without a drop of judgment or anger. During the first section of the novel, Jack has no idea that a world outside Room exists, a reality carefully constructed by his Ma. The second section reveals the secret Ma's been hiding – a horrifying secret most readers will have figured out by the time she reveals it – and hatches a plan for their escape. The last half of the novel takes place outside Room, where the world is all too large and complicated for a 5-year-old just beginning to know it.
Using Jack's voice to narrate, Donoghue is able to use language in fun and inventive ways, which gives her the opportunity to describe Ma and Jack's tiny world without the depression or hate an adult narrator would bring to it. Simple everyday objects – Meltedy Spoon, Wardrobe, Rug, Blanket, Watch – all become proper nouns, far more than objects, they are reality. The TV, which only plays intermittently despite their constant isolation, is regarded by Jack as a different world. He calls the channels planets. At one point, Jack sees a commercial for the painkiller (or as Jack calls them, Killers) that their captor, Old Nick, brings Ma, and he exclaims, "You know what that means? He must go in TV... Old Nick... When he's not here, in the daytime, you know what? He actually goes in TV." His Ma's attempts to describe the outside world become more and more urgent, bringing sadness, catatonia, and then hope into their tiny world. Jack's attachment to Room is understandable, if not rational. His attachment to Room carries with him through the duration of the novel, and probably further into his life as well.
Despite its strong points, and there are many, Room is not perfect. I regret never knowing Ma's real name, or even more about her. In fact, her character, despite being central, is very, very unknowable. Whether this is purposefully done to show how stripped of her personality she has become by being a prisoner for almost a decade or because Jack can't possibly fathom her as any more complex, I'm not sure. There were times when I was far more curious about Ma's health, her struggles, her reentrance into the world, yet she remains flat.
One other thing that bothered me was how unlikeable Jack becomes once he and Ma leave Room. He becomes socially unable, which is understandable, yet, also his curiosity wanes, and he becomes almost resentful of the complexity of the world.
Both Jack and Ma act impulsively after their (re)entrance into the outside world; her anger and his confusion intertwine through the rest of the book, showing how complex and interdependent their relationship is. Dealing with the media, their family, psychologists, medication, and new people is overwhelming for Jack and Ma, who deal with it quite differently.
At one point toward the end of the novel, Ma tells Jack about the study that isolated baby monkeys from their mothers at birth and ultimately proved how detrimental it is to a baby's health to have no physical contact and affection. Jack doesn't like the story, and resents his Ma's telling it to him, but to the reader it is a complicated and fitting metaphor. If one imagines Ma and Jack as babies, denied the world's (their mother) touch, the reader can see how truly scarred they are.
Despite its flaws, and the very tidy ending tacked onto a complex story, Room is an engrossing, terrifying, and insightful read. I recommend it to everyone, and especially to those under 30.