Irish-born writer Emma Donoghue’s novel, Room, was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. It didn’t win, and like any novel propelled into publicity thanks to its appearance as a contender on major prize lists, had its fair share of fans and disparagers. Despite all the hype surrounding it, though, Room does come out as an honest novel, deceptively simple, but in fact possessing a depth that reminds you of life as it used to be, before you stopped letting the wool be pulled over your eyes and decided to open up to reality.
If you’ve forgotten the first time you visited the beach and the various sensations the pricking of the sand underfoot and the tang of the salt-air evoked, then Room will remind you of them. Swinging in the park, making real friends out of cartoon characters on television and forming an instant camaraderie with total strangers will no longer seem like childish pursuits to be looked down upon the length of adult ego-sized noses.
Having lived for five long years in one eleven-by-eleven cork-lined room, Jack is unaware of the world outside. Everything on television is just fantasy, his long-suffering mother tells him, to snuff out any craving he might have for an impossible whiff of fresh air or a romp in the streets. Their captor, whom they call Old Nick, visits them almost every night, bringing them supplies, taking the trash out, and then ‘making the bed creak’ while Jack stays closed up in the wardrobe until it is safe enough for him to scramble into bed beside his mother. Life goes on thus, until one day, Jack’s little, room-sized world is shattered by the revelation that there is an ‘Outside’, that television isn’t all fantasy- Dora the Explorer is, but not the men and women and children, the aeroplanes and the birds. What Jack and his mother see through the skylight actually exists, the objects whose names Ma keeps forgetting are real, and she has a name- two names, in fact- for the rest of the world to call her. For a child born into captivity, fathoming that the various planets on television are in fact all pieces of one large reality isn’t easy.
When Ma finally reaches breaking point and makes a daring plan that she and Jack call their ‘Great Escape’, he is extremely nervous. He has to be ‘scave’- brave though he is scared- and rescue his mother from the clutches of their captor. But things don’t just end there, because that’ll mean opening the door to reality, to a world that Jack is unsure of entering. And while Jack runs in pursuit of liberty, you find yourself egging him on, hoping and praying hard that he’ll make it safely into the arms of a trustworthy adult.
In Room, Donoghue makes you see the world in a way that you used to, through a pair of forgotten lenses buried deep inside but fished out with urgency as you realise that there is much that should be valued but is taken for granted. You warm to Jack instantly as he describes his life alternating amid Wardrobe and Bed and Skylight, his personification of all the objects around him, even as the existence of real people outside seems like a mystery. Inspired by the horrific Josef Fritzl case, Room portrays brilliantly the horrors of a life that most of us would struggle to imagine. Told entirely in Jack’s voice, it is innocent and devoid of any frills or sensationalism.
There are instances towards the end of the book where it seems to lose a little steam and the tautness of the narrative seems to slack away a bit- however, as you read about Jack and his mother coming to terms with change and absorbing the ways of life around them, little by little, you cannot help but put yourself in their shoes. You do wonder at the tremendous intelligence of a boy who has lived a confined life for five years, exposed to the world outside only through an hour of television everyday and the five picture books he has obtained for ‘Sundaytreat’. Most of it seems to draw from real-life incidents across the world- they are shockingly many in number- and the powerful imagery Donoghue evokes brings credibility to the story.
Touching without being unnecessarily dramatic, Room is a strong recommendation if you’re looking to fall in love with writing all over again.
PS: This is probably the first time I’ve read a novel in its year of publication, and I have my library, JustBooks, to thank for it.