I’ve avoided reading Room for a long time. Although I enjoyed Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music and Slammerkin, there was something about the subject matter of Room that made, and still makes, me very uneasy. Some people like to explore uncomfortable themes in fiction, but I’m not one of them. On the other hand I don’t want to create some fluffy, pastel-coloured world for myself in which nothing bad ever happens. With the release of the critically acclaimed film last year (which I also haven’t seen), it became more and more imperative that I should read Room. And, in the end, it was both more endearing and more heartbreaking than I expected. It’s a difficult book to review, so bear with me.
There are two ways in which we can enjoy books. We can enjoy them for their subject-matter or for their quality as a piece of writing. And, even if we focus in on that question of subject, there are two sides to that as well. We can be disturbed by the situation in which characters find themselves, but appreciate the way in which they challenge and respond to their environment. And that – the characterisation and the craft – are the ways in which I admired Donoghue’s brave and troubling book.
Everyone probably knows the story of Room by now. I imagine it would have had more impact if I hadn’t already been aware of the context, so if the phenomenon has passed you by, you might want to stop here so that you can read the novel unspoiled. For those who have no such fears, or as a quick reminder, we see the world through the eyes of five-year-old Jack. Jack and Ma live in Room, where every day is full of tasks and play, from cooking and cleaning to watching Dora the Explorer on TV and playing chequers. Sometimes they run races around Track, which is drawn onto the floor under Rug, and every weekday after lunch they practice Scream, when they stand underneath Skylight and yell as loud as they can. When they watch TV, Jack marvels at the people on all the different planets: the judge planet, the planet with the lady on the couch who talks to others, the wildife planet and the planet with people who hit each other in front of a crowd. This is how Ma helps him to practice his vocabulary.
Jack thinks it’s funny that all these people on TV live in Outer Space. Of course, that’s because they’re not real, only TV. Jack and Ma can’t go Outside, of course. It’s dangerous and they are only kept safe by the big metal Door. But sometimes the Outside can come in, in the form of Old Nick, who comes at night after nine to see Ma. Jack always has to hide in Wardrobe while he’s there, because if Old Nick sees him it’ll be dangerous. And so life goes on, every day, just Jack and Ma, as it always has been and always will be.
Donoghue’s great gift is in her prose – I’ve said this about her other books, where it is always perfectly suited to the period, but she pulls off a real coup with Jack’s narrative voice. I often grumble about authors failing to write credible children, but Jack sounds entirely authentic. His exuberant chatty style is addictive and it’s by reading between the lines of what seems normal to this bright little boy that we understand the true horror of his and Ma’s situation. We have all encountered far too many similar stories on the news and where Donoghue does well is to take away the slightly voyeuristic gleam and present us with the facts, simplified and normalised through the eyes of a child. It’s through Jack that we come to understand Ma’s creativity and determination to educate her child, and through him that we see the indomitability of the human spirit continuing to flourish and grow even in the cruellest of places.
A lot of research has gone into this book. Donoghue writes confidently about the kind of psychological issues that might arise from being in a place like Room and she never takes the heartwarming, easy, saccharine route. Jack’s journey is a hard one, but because we see it through his eyes it is always new and always an adventure. Being young and resilient, he can cope with unexpected changes in a way that Ma, after years of outer strength and inner struggle, finds it more difficult to process. (It would be interesting, at some point, to see whether the film has been Hollywoodised at all. I’d also be curious to see what the film’s atmosphere is like, because by its very nature it surely can’t be governed in the same way by Jack’s compelling viewpoint.)
As I said at the beginning, it’s a hard book to review. I have no desire to reread it, but I did find it extremely moving and poignant, full of compassion but without ever tugging on the heartstrings in a manipulative way. It is the kind of story that lingers with you: afterwards I just lay on the floor for a while, staring at the ceiling and trying to measure out my sitting room by eye, and for the rest of the day I felt uneasy and haunted. That’s the sign of a fine book. So, too, is the excellent narrative voice. I can’t, in all honesty, say that I enjoyed it. But it is a modern classic and one that I can wholeheartedly recommend.