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.
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).