Emma Donoghue’s Room (2010) is longest 300 pages of mostly-dialog I’ve ever read. I think it literally took me six weeks, from my birthday in mid April to now, at the end of May, to work my way through this one. I actually considered putting it away without finishing, something I almost never do.
Not because it isn’t good. It’s actually pretty amazing–creative, insightful, revelatory in this incredibly sneaky, deceptively simplistic way, an incredible piece of craftsmanship. It’s good the way Schindler’s List is good; well done, but mostly not enjoyable.
The story is narrated in the first person by five-year-old Jack, a child raised entirely in Room, an 11×11 foot backyard shed where he and his mother are held prisoner by a man Jack knows only as Old Nick. At the beginning of the story, Jack feels safe and comfortable in Room–his daily routine includes meals and exercise, reading and chores, play time and no more than two television shows. But the realities of his situation are beginning to show through the safe world his Ma has created for him. At night, after Jack has gone to sleep in Wardrobe, Old Nick comes. Some days Ma is “switched off”–she stays in bed all day, and Jack is allowed to watch all the T.V. he wants. When Old Nick begins experiencing financial difficulties and providing fewer supplies, their situation becomes even more desperate.
In constructing Jack’s voice, the author gives herself some latitude, but her characterization is true to the narrator’s age overall. Like most five-year-olds Jack argues with his mother and has occasional tantrums. He experiences and expresses curiosity, anxiety and fear in authentic and believable ways. His constant one-on-one time with his mother has given him an advanced vocabulary as well as reading and math skills several years ahead of his real age. His emotional development, however, is complicated by the fact that he’s only really ever known one other person. This makes for an interesting juxtaposition and leaves plenty of room for growth later in the novel. My only complaint is that Jack always seems to know why he does things. In my experience, this is not the case with most children–or many adults for that matter. His capacity for self-consciousness and analysis is probably pretty unrealistic.
This is a well written, thoughtfully constructed book well worth reading. It’s harrowing and difficult, but it does end on a hopeful note.