Room, by Emma Donoghue

Purchased from the Book Depository

WARNING: There are spoilers in this review — it is the only way I can address some of my concerns. If you have not read Room and don’t like spoilers you can find enhusiastic reviews sans spoilers at Reading Matters and Farm Lane Books and an ambivalent one (very close to my thoughts) at The Asylum. I’ll admit that this review is meant for those who don’t care about spoilers or have already read the novel. (Room is scheduled for Canadian release Sept. 7 and it will be Giller eligible.)

Emma Donoghue is an Irish-born and raised author who lives in London, Ontario. Room is her eighth novel; she has had some bestsellers (Slammerkin) and is no stranger to prizes — The Sealed Letter won the Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Fiction and was longlisted for the 2008 Giller Prize. Despite that record, the appearance of Room on this year’s Booker longlist was a bit of a surprise — word is that it was not submitted by the publisher, but called in by the jury. And from discussions on various forums, I would say that this novel (perhaps joined by The Slap) is the most divisive of books on the list — most people either love it or hate it. In true contrarian fashion, I am in neither camp. If I was awarding stars, I would give it a solid 2.5 out of 5. There are certainly things to like about the book but, for me at least, in the final analysis it did not succeed.

The briefest of all plot summaries: Room of the title is a 12 foot by 12 foot shed somewhere in the United States where Old Nick has kept and sexually assaulted an imprisoned Ma for seven years; she had a stillbirth six years ago; the book’s narrator, Jack, was born five years ago. Ma has done her best to turn Room into a survivable (and complete) world for her and Jack; Old Nick does keep them supplied and there are “sundaytreats” that they can request.

Let’s deal with that distinctive narrative voice first. Jack has just celebrated his fifth birthday, with cake (decorated with candies, not candles — somehow he knows enough to object to the absence of candles) and wants a breast-feeding (yes, Ma is still doing that):

“Can I have some?”

“First thing tomorrow,” says Ma, pulling her T-shirt back down.

“No, tonight.”

She points up at Watch that says 08:57, that’s only three minutes before nine. So I run into Wardrobe and lie down on my pillow and wrap up in Blanket that’s all gray and fleecy with the red piping. I’m just under the drawing of me that I forgot was there. Ma puts her head in. “Three kisses?”

“No, five for Mr. Five.”

She gives me five then squeaks the doors shut.

Those capitals could easily become annoying (and certainly are to those who detest the book) but I’ll admit that, for me, the author pulled the child narrator off. In the first half of the book there are actually three Jacks. One is far more than a precocious five-year-old — he’s an adult-like observer of the 12-foot-square world that has been his life. Jack Number Two is much like a normal five-year-old, still learning things. And Jack Number Three is representative of total absence of experience — he has never been Outside, so there is an immense amount he has never experienced at all except through the television in Room. You have to grant the author a lot of licence to appreciate this (particularly the near-adult voice) but if you do Donoghue succeeds in creating a version of what this strange, constrained world might be like for its two inhabitants.

So, having set up that confined, simple world with two characters (Old Nick doesn’t really play much of a part and Donoghue wisely doesn’t exploit the obligatory sex scenes), where does she take them? That’s where my problems with the book begin (and where the spoilers in this review start).

They escape to Outside in a development that does defy all credibility and sets the book on its downward slope. Jack fakes being dead, is wrapped up in Rug, Ma convinces Old Nick to take him away to be buried, he is loaded on to Truck, jumps off when it is stopped, runs into a man taking his child and dog for a walk, who conveniently calls some very understanding police.

Despite that, there is still the potential for a successful novel — we have a 26-year-old woman who has been isolated for seven years and a five-year-old who has never left Room, except through the medium of television. Alas, at this point the author abandons the fantasy of fiction invention and opts instead for what I would call pseudo-journalism (“what would it be like if this really happened?” becomes the point of view). Jack and Ma are taken to a psychiatric hospital and the process of integrating into the real world begins. The “adult” Jack voice disappears and the latter half of the novel has a lot of paras like this one:

There’s a tiny packet that says Shampoo, Ma opens it with her teeth, she’s using it all up so there’s nearly none left. She waters her hair for ages and puts on more stuff from another little packet that says Conditioner for making silky. She wants to do mine but I don’t want to be silky, I won’t put my face in the splash. She washes me with her hands because there’s no cloth. There’s bits of my legs gone purple from where I jumped out of the brown truck ages ago. My cuts hurt everywhere, especially on my knee under my Dora and Boots Band-Aid that’s going curly, Ma says that means the cut’s getting better. I don’t know why hurting means getter better.

Grandma, stepGrandpa and assorted relatives get introduced. Having asked the reader to enter a world of detestable fantasy (and suspend some obvious criticisms about lack of reality) the last half of the book focuses on the mundane and the obvious. It moves slower and slower and Jack, who had been established as a relatively interesting fictional character, becomes more and more annoying.

I can certainly understand why this section succeeds for those who do like the book. I am of a gender and age that has never had to contemplate being abducted and imprisoned in this kind of fashion — I can see where those who have thought about that would find more to appreciate than I did. But I will admit that I began thinking more and more often “John Fowles did a much better job with this scenario in The Collector than this book does.”

Having said that, Donoghue is an accomplished writer and the strength of the first half did stay with me — I just felt there could be so much more explored than what she chose to do with the latter half of the book. The result for me was a readable narrative, but not much more. Those who love this book engage with it emotionally; those who hate it disengage just as emotionally; I have to admit that I didn’t really do either.

Sorry for the spoilers, but every other discussion site has taken great care to avoid them, for very good reasons. I think they need to be on the table for a legitimate discussion of why the book succeeds or fails. I am not unhappy that I read it, but I can’t say that I look forward to a second read (which I do promise to undertake if it makes either the Booker or Giller shortlist).

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28 Responses to “Room, by Emma Donoghue”

  1. kimbofo Says:

    Well, as you know, I loved this book (thanks for the link), but having read your review it reminded me of things I didn’t love or thought were failings.

    In the first half I kept wondering where the story was going. Surely there wasn’t going to be 300+ pages about two people stuck in the room; I was relieved to find out they were going to escape! However, and this is where I agree with you completely, the escape is far too contrived and not really realistic. How could he be smuggled out in a rug without Old Nick copping on?

    Unlike you, however, it was the second half of the novel that I appreciated more than the first. I thought it was interesting to see a young boy, who has not had any experience of the outside world, adjust to a new reality. There were certain standout moments when you realise the enormity of this transition – for instance, the fact he cannot use stairs, not just because he doesn’t know what they are, but because his physical development has been stifled in the confines of his previous room.

    I particularly liked the way Donoghue portrays the relationship between the grandmother and the grandson she did not know existed, and how that stretches her tolerance, not only of having to put up with a new little person around her feet but knowing the circumstances of his conception. There were little things like that that I think make this book an interesting, thought-provoking read, although I appreciate that many will fall for it purely on an emotional basis (which is what I did).

  2. John Self Says:

    A technical point: by “obligatory sex scenes”, Kevin, I presume you mean “obligatory rape scenes”?

    I must admit that the question this book best answered for me was, “Why haven’t Emma Donoghue’s last few books been published in the UK?” To me, ten or fifteen years ago, she had been a relatively prominent figure in that her books were often praised in the same breath as those of Jeanette Winterson (lazily, on the grounds that both wrote ‘ambitious’ lesbian fiction). So I had heard of Hood and Slammerkin and even seen them in the shops, though never read them.

    And the question was answered for me by Room because it made me realize that the reason she hadn’t been published for a while in the UK was because, on the evidence of Room, she’s not a very good writer.

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    kimbofo: Thanks for the extended comment. It is very hard when doing a review to say “while it didn’t work for me, here is why I think it worked for other people” — your perspective is a valuable alternative to mine.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    John: On your technical point, I did consider “rape” but thought that more dramatic phrase (while certainly accurate) would leave a misleading impression (although I can also see why “sex” has the same flaw, in the other direction). Part of what interested me was that Ma has come to accept the abuse as a necessary part of keeping the Jack part of her world as “safe” as possible.

    I haven’t read any other Donoghue and had not heard of Hood or Slammerkin until this book came out. I have heard of The Sealed Letter and in support of your point the only person I know who read it (my fellow Shadow Giller juror Alison) said she found it routine and boring.

  5. Maylin Says:

    I literally finished a galley of this book five minutes before reading your review (I really needed to clear my head and take a break so I was browsing the internet). I thought it was a very powerful read, but yes, with some flaws – the main for me was the oridinary excursion to the mall with Uncle Paul’s family where they seemed almost unaware or unattuned to what a scary experience this could be for Jack being his first real Outside venture, especially without his mother. But overall I enjoyed this book. I don’t have kids and really don’t know what the emotional/developmental stage of your average 5 year old would be, so I quickly just accepted Jack as a character, didn’t question the realism and just went along for the narrative ride. I agree with Kimbofo that the second half was interesting for the many different responses of society to this situation, but it was rushed – I think Donoghue was trying to fit in too much and certain threads didn’t really get resolved such as the relationship between the mother and her own father. And yes, I agree Kevin, the Jack of the second half wasn’t as strong, but it still gave me chills everytime he wanted to return to the Room. It’s a tough subject but Donoghue didn’t milk it for sensationalism. The mother’s character in particular impressed me – all those thoughtful, intelligent language games and excercises she made up to try and educate Jack were very moving as was their relationship at times. And yet her fears and depression were also well depicted. So I’m willing to overlook a few flaws because overall this was a risky book to write and I think she pulled it off and it certainly affected me emotionally.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Maylin: I think your excellent comment illustrates why reactions to this book are so varied. If the mother’s character has been established strongly enough in the reader’s mind (as it obviously did with you), I think the latter part of the book is much less of a problem. Alas for me, as much as I was interested in her in the first half, the last half was a steady eroding of interest. But I will certainly admit that was a very personal reaction and is in no way a criticism of those who reacted differently. And I will retreat behind my comment late in the review — I think the attitude (and perhaps contemplated experience) that a reader brings to this book will have a major impact on how good that person thinks it is.

  7. Tom C Says:

    You have written a very thorough summary of the book and as I am probably not going to read it any time soon (too big a TBR pile at the moment), it was useful to read your views on it – the spoilers flesh out the picture and are helpful. Judging from the insightful comments you have received above, this would be a very good book for a bookgroup discussion.

    Another controversial book – this one seems to be rather better than The Slap!

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: At least Room and The Slap are provoking some discussion. Unfortunately a lot of this year’s Booker list doesn’t seem to be provoking much reaction at all.

  9. Jackie (Farm Lane Books) Says:

    It is interesting to read your review. As you know I loved this book, but take your point about the escape – that was totally unrealistic.

    Like Kimbofo, I also prefered the second section of the book. I wasn’t that amazed by the first half, but loved seeing Jack’s experience of the outside world. It made me realise how much children appreciate the simple things in life. How they don’t need the complex world, but are happy as long as they have attention from others. It broke my heart to think about poor Jack having to sleep in a room on his own for the first time or get used to not having his mother’s undivided attention. I think this book teaches us a lot of important lessons about our society today and I’m really pleased that it is at least provoking discussion.

    • Max Cairnduff Says:

      In Swann’s Way Proust makes a very similar point about the child’s need for attention in a handful of pages. It’s certainly something worth bringing out, I’d question if it needs a whole novel though.

  10. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Blast, my comment got eaten.

    Well, let’s try to reconstruct.

    I do care about spoilers and I haven’t read this, so thanks for the upfront warning which I appreciate. I read on as I’d already decided this wasn’t for me. John’s review put me off it and the positive reviews I’ve read didn’t entice. Your review confirms what I already suspected, that this isn’t one I’d find interesting.

    Like a lot of this year’s Bookers it just sounds a bit there. The Galgut and the McCarthy have layers to them, stuff going on beyond the story itself. Most of the rest though seem to be just their stories. They are what they are, no more and no less. I expect more from the Booker. I don’t downplay the importance of story, but it’s not enough (for a Booker novel, for pulp fantasy say I’d be perfectly happy with that).

    This just doesn’t sound like it does anything particularly interesting. Clearly it has many fans, but with so many books out there I just don’t see myself becoming one of them.

    Good luck with the rest of the list Kevin.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Jackie, Max: I think your comments do a good job of framing the reaction to the book. At one end of the spectrum, it has the focus that Jackie outlines in her comment — and that focus has a particular topicality (I am not one of those who holds it against Donoghue for using a real event as her starting point). At the other end of the spectrum, the way that the author chooses to do that makes it (in my terminology) more journalism than literature. She obviously succeeds with some readers and I salute that — those of us who were looking for something else should probably look elsewhere. I certainly disagree with those who totally rubbish the book — whatever flaws I might find it, there is obviously something there.

    Interesting that you should raise Proust in your reply to Jackie, Max. Therre is another Proust “moment” on this year’s Booker list in the early pages of Carey’s Parrot and Olivier (he bites his mother in spite rather than scheming for a kiss). I’ll admit it was so clumsy and awkward that it was the starting point for much that I would find wrong with the book.

  12. Room, by Emma Donoghue « ANZ LitLovers LitBlog Says:

    [...] hours of my Sunday morning.  And I did not care for it at all, and for much the same reasons as Kevin from Canada and John Self at [...]

  13. Nadine Lumley Says:

    Re KevinfromCanada Says:
    Re August 14, 2010 at 5:05 pm | Reply
    Part of what interested me was that Ma has come to accept the abuse as a necessary part of keeping the Jack part of her world as “safe” as possible.

    Re the above from Kevin; let me assure you no matter how much she has accepted her plight (which she doesn’t imo), the abuse is rape and she would def. see it as rape. He’s an old disgusting man. To call it sex is a crime against humanity.

    This is a fine example of how most women will do anything (rape, stripper, prostitute, sex slave) in order to protect their child and how many men abuse and exploit the bond between mothers and their children. I like the book on that point alone actually.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    I am reading the book last two nights, it is keeping me up late reading so that has to be a good point. It makes me think it’s A Beautiful Life for the single mother.

    This book was HIGHLY recommened to me but I am disappointed in it. The child’s weird speech pattern makes zero sense to me. I am a single mother of a boy, raised him alone, just him and I. I didn’t work for much of his first ten years so I know the sheer boredom associated with raising a child by yourself.

    That said I think it does remind me very much of being a single mother and her keeping to schedule is very Dr. Ferber of her and trying to entertain a small children, that defo. rings true. Chopping the day up into segments rings very true.

    I can’t imagine why she’s putting a five year old to bed at 9:00 pm when the Old Nick comes in at 9 pm. That makes no sense. After a full day of being with a child, a mom looks forward to bedtime like a normal kid looks forward to Christmas. She’s got nothing but time on her hand so why wouldn’t she be putting the kid to bed at 7:30 or 8:00 and then she would have some brain resting time before the next assault comes in at 9 pm. There is no way I would put my kid to bed at 9 knowing I’m about to get raped at 9.

    And I know I’m being picky, I have problems with the way the five year old is portrayed as being too mature. Believe me, a five year old is not going to make a connection between Old Nick strangling his mom and bruises on her neck. He would just see the bruises the next morning, wonder where she got them and then not think about it much after that after not being told the truth anyway why would he know. And a five year old is very self focussed and would not be wondering about her well being that much, especially since she doesn’t abuse the child he has no need to worry about her at all.

    And if she just spent five years teaching him to talk and not rot his brain out on t.v. why is his talking so bad. She’s hotting up the beans? I could see a kid saying that once or twice when they’re three but not over and over again until his five; his mom corrects him all the time so that speech pattern makes no sense. NO SENSE.

    And how is she getting away with screaming at the skylight everyday at noon when Nick hasn’t worked in the last six months. It’s bizarre to think he wouldn’t have come in during the day all bored and ready to abuse both of them for entertainment. There is no way he would not have heard them screaming once during those six months. Where exactly is Nick supposed to be for six months during the week. That was dumb.

    It really freaked me out when Nick turned the power off on her. So far that was the most chilling part for me. It must be like the 33 miners in the earth wondering okay, is this it? Am I going to die. And still she takes care of Jack, that rings true.

    Okay, I still have to go finish the book. I skipped ahead so I know what’s in store for me. I knew very early on they were trapped in a room and I instantly thought of that kidnapping case in Germany and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read it or not, that’s why I skipped ahead. BUt it is remarkably READABLE considering how many things bug me about it, and plot issues I have with it.

  14. Cherine Badwi-Hlady Says:

    Received this book as a birthday present and felt compelled to read it over the holiday. The experience was like eating fast food: a bit of cheap thrill but afterwards I thought “why did I do that to myself?”. Questions of authenticity of narration aside, I found the premise of the novel so disturbing I was in real distress while reading it (especially for someone who is claustrophobic and the new mother of a seven-month old). Yet I tore through the first half of the book with gusto, but then post-escape it became mundane and dare I say it, even boring (for me there was no real question/mystery that they’d escape considering the last two chapter names were “After” and “Living”). Note to self: reading books about forcible confinement and systematic rape are not how I want to spend my precious leisure time. Never again. It’s off to the new Jane Urquhart now for some more gentle prose.

  15. chaz Says:

    I read the first 100 pages of Room but didn’t finish it because it seemed like an unrealistic representation of a child, even if he did live his whole life in one room. And as for the parts where Old Nick comes in the room, I felt like puuting the book down.

    For me, the second part where they escape sounds a lot more interesting than when they lived in the room and lived a monotonous life. But that’s only my opinion.

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Chaz: I had the opposite reaction — I quite like the first part of the book, found the latter half very disappointing. Certainly, it is a book that has provoked widely different responses.

  17. Twelfth Says:

    I put it down after ten pages. Bleh. I thought I could just find the short version with a google search. I’m glad I found this site. Great insight everyone.

    Although I think a five year old would totally associate neck bruises with the source, I agree with Nadine’s comments. My thoughts find so much more unrealistic with the story. Does Ma never lash out her emotional stress toward her child? Seriously? Basically a child herself when first captured, and she has presence of mind to not become addicted to pain medication? Really? A book about the effects/affects of abuse, and the abusive scenes are never breached? That boy’s deepest scars would be his experience after 9 pm!

    Alas, I guess this book is really just about his relationship with his Room more than anything else. Well, that about sums it up for me- ignorance is bliss and human nature longs for the simple days of childhood ignorance. Wow! What a grotesque route to describe that point.

    I may be too harsh. Bottom line for me- the writing style gave me a headache, and caused my mind to think less rather than more.

  18. shawna Says:

    I know I’m a while behind the trend here, but I just finished this book and so finally have some thoughts to contribute.

    Overall, I agree that this book could have been so much more than it was. I found the first part somewhat interesting but was hoping the second half would offer a lot more insight into what the developmental/psychological impacts of growing up in a confined world would be on a child.

    Instead, the author seemed to try and use Jack’s limited narrative voice to pass commentary on society (i.e. everybody seems busy and tired in Outside, in Room we were never too busy). For me, these insights were neither interesting or well developed and so fell a little flat.

  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Shawna: While it has been some time since I read the book (and visits to the site confirm that people continue to check it out, so you are not late by any means), for me time has confirmed the impression in your comment.

    While the first part was not without its weaknesses, it was innovative and had my interest. Disappointment grew rapidly when the story moved Outside — it became descriptive rather than perceptive and added little to my interest.

  20. beth Says:

    My mom handed me Room and said tell me what u think, i cant get into it. I read the first page and wasnt put off by the grammar and style. I read this book in two days. I have an 11 month old girl and havent been able to finish a magazine lately. I liked the book and I remembered through the whole read that it is fiction, saying that i do not know how a child would be after this experience. Whether he would be mature or able to connect the dots of his mother’s bruising. Every child is different.
    I read the entire book riveted by the journey of these two people. I breastfeed and i was surprised that Ma still breastfed but why shouldnt she if she can? Its comforting for both mother and child. I had seen other reviews that were almost disgusted that Ma still breastfed Jack. I think its a good thing for both.
    I admit I cried twice. Once when Jack was forced to wean, and the second time when they went back to Room and Jack said bye to Wall, Bed and everything he had known his whole life. Poor kid. I just wanted to hug him. He never thought bad of that place. I felt equally as bad for Ma. I cant believe she went back there but she lives for her son and that is honorable seeing as how he came into her life.
    As kid are all different, i realize readers all have different opinions. I dont think my mom would read this book but I am glad she handed it to me. I havent read a book so intriguing in a long time.

  21. Sherri Hext Says:

    This is the book our Bookworms discussed last month. Having read it sometime ago I gave it another reading & really was more impressed on the second time through. I let myself identify more with the characters & situation & left off the critical approach.
    Having taught Kindergarten for 31 years I had some predisposed ideas about young children & had to set aside these in order toy enter the limitng & limited world of a “one-to-one classroom”.
    The creativity of mom using whatever was at hand & the setting up of interesting physical challenges with a fairly rigid schedule worked for them.
    However I did find it a bit hard to fathom some of the details of language patterns of Jack as well as the unawareness of the outside world, even though he had been exposed to it through TV.
    Sherri

  22. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Sherri: I can only say that judging from the continuing searches and hits on my review, Room continues to be a book club favorite. I’ll admit that I don’t have much to say about it that has not already been said in the original review and following comments. It wasn’t for me, but I can understand why others like the book.

  23. Jess Says:

    The speech pattern was annoying and after I finished the book I went and read some bronte sisters, some hamlet and some emliy dickinson. I felt as though I couldn’t talk probably and because I spent so much time with Jack, I felt as though I might start talking like him. I felt that all the big words had been sucked from my vocabulary.

  24. NMRose Says:

    For me, the glaringly unbelievable part of this story is the attempted suicide. Obviously, the author reailized it was the only way to get Ma away from Jack for a while; but from beginning to overdose, Ma states, and gives overwhelming evidence that Jack is her world, her savior, etc., and would do everything to protect him. Imagine Ma leaving him behind to survive without her, and be raised by her own mother, the woman she remembers she can barely tolerate. Some will say all is possible in the grips of depression. Nope, not in THIS case, with THIS Ma.

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