Saturday, July 9, 2011

Room, by Emma Donoghue

By a strange coincidence, Novel Conversations will be discussing Room the night after the heavily promoted Diane Sawyer interview with Jaycee Dugard airs. Room tells a story that seems to have a number of similarities with the real-life Dugard story, but it is told from the story of five-year-old Jack, who lives in a 11 x 11 room with his "Ma." In fact, Jack was born in the room, the product of his mother's repeated rapes by their captor, whom they call "Old Nick."

Jack is happy in Room (he names most objects, not using's "Plant" not "the plant"). His mother has created a life that, though severely restricted by their circumstances, is rich with love. They share music and stories, have "Phys Ed" for exercise, play games, and create crafts from the meager supplies available (they blow out eggs and use the shells to create a snake that Jack stores under Bed). They have a television, but Ma limits Jack's viewing time. To Jack every channel is a different planet, and only what happens inside Room is real.

While Jack is happy, Ma is not doing so well. Some days she is "Gone"--sleeping and unresponsive. Her teeth cause her constant pain. And Old Nick is still raping her several nights a week. After Jack's fifth birthday, Ma begins to "unlie"--to begin helping construct a more accurate view of the world outside Room. She also hatches an extremely dangerous escape plan. It is, I suppose, a "spoiler" to say the plan succeeds--but I'm not sure anyone would want to read the book if Jack and Ma never got out of Room. Indeed, their experiences trying to understand and cope with "Outer Space" and reintegrate with Ma's family are by far the most interesting and thought-provoking parts of the book. The post-Room period also offers Donoghue a chance to satirize the media, who go crazy when the story of Jack and Ma's escape becomes public.

The author has done a marvelous job getting into the mind of five-year-old Jack (or at least it seems like she has--what do I know about the mind of a five-year-old?), and I admire the skill and humor with which she has drawn her unusual narrator. On the other hand, I think I would have enjoyed the book more if we had gotten the story from both Jack and Ma's perspectives. Although I think the device of multiple narrators is over-used, this might be a case in which it would have worked. Nonetheless, Room is worth reading, both to experience Jack's mind and to think about the philosophical questions it poses.

Favorite passage:
When I was a little kid I thought like a little kid, but now I'm five I know everything.


  1. I loved this book, though it was absolutely terrifying in places (more than some pure horror novels even!) A lot of people hated the second half though, so I wrote a defense of sorts of it here:

  2. I agree with your assessment of the second half of the book--most people in our book group liked the post-Room sections, although one thought the book should have ended with the escape. Your view of Ma was a totally different take than I had. I'll have to think about that some!

  3. I can't say enough wonderful things about this book. It kept me up late two nights in a row because it was nearly impossible to put down. It was heartbreaking and joyful and beautiful and believable.

  4. I was surprised by the range of 'stars' for this book. I loved it!! The voice and reasoning of a 5-yr old brain. A mother's hope and effort to raise a healthly, intelligent little boy. It was shocking sometimes. Definitely not fun and games. But amazingly hopeful and brave. It provided a thoughtful insight to a world I could never imagine on my own. And, for me, that is why I am always looking for the next great book. I sure hated to put this one down.