Emma Donoghue has written some wonderful novels, but this one is her best yet. It is no wonder that it was short-listed for the Booker Prize in England. I think it is one of the best novels I have read in a long time.
Emma Donoghue’s The Room (321 pages, Little, Brown and Company, $24.99) is a little confusing at first. A young woman and her five-year-old son are celebrating the boy’s birthday. The reader starts to notice how much is absent and how vividly the pair is improvising. Jack, the boy, is telling the story from his own perspective. This child’s voice and child’s perspective is one of the great achievements of the novel. Like one of the great novelists of the nineteenth century, Emma Donoghue creates a child-narrator that captures the reader’s attention and makes the entire story irresistible.
At first Jack is explaining how he and Ma pass their time in “The Room,” where they seem to be living. As Jack explains their games and the delightful ways they find to spend their days, it gradually dawns on the reader that these two characters are somehow trapped in a single room. Later it becomes clear that they are imprisoned in a sound-proof garden shed by a psychopath who has abducted the girl some years earlier.
Jack has been born in The Room, even he seems to understand, and until midway through the novel, that is the only world he knows. He has created a wonderland out of Bed and Stove and Skylight and Wardrobe, but the limits of his experience are truly harrowing.
Old Nick, their jailer, visits occasionally, sometimes bringing presents and always asking for sexual favors from Ma. She does what she can to placate the maniac because she fears for the little boy, and whenever Old Nick visits, Jack hides in the wardrobe and tries to keep silent.
The woman has been imprisoned for nearly seven years, it turns out, and finally she and Jack between them figure out a means of escape. It is a crazy plan, but somehow it works; and suddenly Ma and Jack are in a clinic that is trying to help them reacquaint, or in Jack’s case acquaint, themselves with the world.
The second half of the novel, which takes place outside The Room, is almost as ghoulish as the time spent within. Everything is new and monstrous to Jack. The air is too fresh, the sun it too strong, and life itself is a challenge for him. Ma, too, seems overwhelmed by the experience facing them.
Ma’s family does not help. Her mother, so guiltily solicitous, and her brother trying to help but putting his foot in it every time, are nearly maddening. Everyone, except the folks at the clinic, think Jack just needs to get out a bit. But when he does, the experience of the world nearly overwhelms him.
Ma has her own problems too, when her story becomes known and the media descends in an attempt to make her into a celebrity. For a while it seems as if neither of them will survive the ordeal of their liberation.
But remember that this entire story is told from the perspective of a five-year-old. He is a precocious boy in a lot of ways, but still! Jack’s perspective on everything that happens is more than unusual. It is magical in the ways that only the very best children's narratives have been. I am thinking of novels like Alice in Wonderland , David Copperfield,or Peter Pan. I would put this novel in a class with those masterpieces.
That is to say: Emma Donghue has written a masterpiece with The Room. I urge everyone who reads this blog to get it somewhere and read it right away. I have a copy I will share with anyone nearby.
The Room available at Vroman's and Amazon.