Author: Emma Donoghue

2010, Little, Brown and Company

Filed Under: Literary

Reactions I had when reading this book: I hate this; wow, this is good; do I hate this?; maybe it’s brilliant.

I don’t think I’ve ever been as ambivalent about a book as I am on Room. At times I found myself pretty amazed at how well the narrator, five year-old Jack, entranced me and effortlessly positioned me as a reader within his point of view. At other times, feeling trapped within that perspective annoyed the hell out of me and I wanted to put the novel down down and never go back.

Jack is a small child who has lived his entire life in the same room in which he was born–amniotic fluid stains the carpet. His mother is a kidnapped rape victim, plucked from her college campus and imprisoned in a converted shed-dungeon for 5 years. Jack doesn’t have the capacity to understand this though. He sees Room–as he calls it–as the entire universe. He grasps language and concepts through television, each channel being a different, fantastical “planet” and the furniture is given proper nouns as names. The reader quickly puts together Jack’s situation, and is left to interpret the world (which his mother simultaneously attempts to explain to Jack and guard him from) through his filter.

This is the one thing Room does right, and it works so well it almost ruins the book. Donoghue really nails Jack’s perspective. This book is an excellent exercise in point of view. It’s already shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, and is sure to be nominated for other awards. She’s getting these nominations for her tour de force in perspective, and not her plotting,  or thematic depth, or anything else. A significant problem arises with a pitch-perfect five year-old narrator. While little kids are often cute, charming, curious, and oddly insightful, they are also at times loud, incessant, even annoying, brats.

Jack’s narration reads like this:

Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero. “Was I minus numbers?”

This book is hundreds of pages of that, and it gets grating.

We read as Jack’s consciousness and his mother’s desperation become too large for the room. But in the process of this happening, the plot loses a lot of steam. (SPOILER ALERT: The next paragraph and the quote that follows it contain spoilers. To skip them, click here and you’ll be taken to the end of this review.)

About halfway through Donoghue pulls a very necessary plot twist and removes Jack from Room. But after a few chapters of excitement, the plot merely plods along, with only a few blips of the unexpected. For the most part the same basic things happen repeatedly: Jack is in a particular place, and he tries to figure out all that is foreign to him. The weight of the book remains the burden of Jack’s sense of discovery. While this is at times very interesting, it becomes stale, and sometimes gets preachy:

Also, everywhere I’m looking at kids. Adults mostly don’t seem to like them. Not even the parents do. They call the kids gorgeous and so cute. They make the kids do the thing all over again so they can take a photo. But they don’t want to actually play with them, they’d rather drink coffee talking to other adults. Sometimes there’s a small kid crying and the Ma of it doesn’t even hear.

This book drove me nuts. But it’s also very good. I’ll bet it gets picked for Oprah’s book club, if it hasn’t already. Room is a fascinating study in character and narrator, and occasionally proves insightful or poignant. But it’s still more curio than literature. It’s 336 pages of baby talk. So weigh those against each other and decide for yourself if this is something you want to read.

Similar Reads: The Road (McCarthy)