Room (2010): Emma Donoghue


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.

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14 thoughts on “Room (2010): Emma Donoghue

  1. dehggial says:

    sorry to be OT, but I’ve always wanted to ask you this so it had to happen somewhere: where do you find the time to read so much??? I too read (in between two opera productions 😉 ) but my god, I could have never gone through so much material even when I was a teenager and I was at my readiest. I’m simply amazed!

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Ha ha – I read very fast, Dehgg, I live by myself and I’ve had a very quiet weekend. 😉 I read Room in about three hours on Saturday and then read another book on Sunday. Books like this, I know I can get through fairly quickly, but if it’s something thicker or part of a series or something where I need to concentrate on old-fashioned language or odd quirks, it’ll often take me a few days.

      It’s always a good sign when I storm through something because it means it’s good! At the moment, for example, I’m fighting to get through a book on my Kindle because I need to review it, but it just isn’t catching my attention at all. Usually when that happens I go off, read another book and then come back to it.

      But I’ve also been making a real effort to read more recently. This blog is – and should be – primarily a book blog, but when I was in my opera-obsessed phase last year I hardly wrote about a single book, and that made me sad… Besides, I enjoy writing about books more because I get more interaction from all the lovely people who comment on bookish things. You’re often the only person who comments on my opera posts. If I didn’t want to write something for my own records and to share the companies and singers I love, I probably wouldn’t bother with them…

      • dehggial says:

        I see your point re: book reviews.

        I guess that’s the thing, you read quickly, I’ve never been a quick reader, even when the book is written in simple language (on the plus side I can recall entire passages because I read them more than once 😉 ). Also I can’t put down a book and immediately start a new one. But thank you for indulging my curiosity 🙂

  2. Isi says:

    Eavesdropping the conversation above: I also think you read very fast!

    Regarding Room, it was one of the first books I read in English, I borrowed it from the library (thank goodness for the library we have here in my hometown!).
    It was also a compelling read for me: I was amazed at the way Ma created an entire world for Jack; he didn’t need anything else, he was happy, learnt things, exercised, etc., while she in the inside… I don’t want to thing about how that woman should have felt. Anyway, I think also Jack was the reason for her to stay alive.


    The floppiest part of the book was the runaway, in my opinion. A bit implausible, but well, it’s fiction, and we believe it.
    In any case, after they are out of Room you are truly aware of the great job Ma did: the boy now was insecure, unable to adapt to this new world far from “his home”. Poor Jack 😦

    I haven’t watched the film either, but I would like to.
    When I finished this book, I listened to an audiobook by Jaycee Dougard – an americal girl who was kidnapped at the age of 11 and was released 18 years later. Amazing story, very hard, and very sad too, since the girl (now woman) had trouble too to live in the “real world”.

    A “kiss that left all the others behind” to you! 😉

  3. Heloise Merlin says:

    Writing in a style that on first glance seems inappropriate for its subject matter can have great impact if done by a talented writer – I had a similar experience a while back when reading Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s Three Apples Fell From Heaven where she writes of the Turkish genocide of the Armenian people in gorgeous, sensual prose and manages to make the atrocities she describes even more painful to read about for being described in an utterly beautiful language.

    Room seems to go for something similar with Jack’s voice, and I’m glad to hear that Emma Donoghue pulls it off – I have not read anything by her yet, but I’ve always suspected that she’d be an author I’d like once I get around to reading one of her books. And I don’t think books necessarily have to be enjoyable – literature-as-entertainment certainly should be, but there’s also literature-as-art should be concerned with truth rather than pleasure (much the same way drawings do not need to be beautiful to be great art).

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Oh I agree, of course, which is why I made a distinction – perhaps it would have been wiser to have phrased it as a distinction between enjoyment and appreciation? And you are absolutely right in that an unexpected viewpoint often intensifies the impact of a story that might have felt exploitative or sickening treated in another fashion. Personally I wouldn’t see this as literature-as-art (that would be more something like Kristen Lavransdatter), more as a very powerful exercise in imaginative empathy, but I would love to know your feelings if you get round to reading it!

      Good reference to Goya 😉

  4. Ana says:

    My goodness, what a way you have with words. Your reviews are a joy to read. You are able to capture the book’s essence to the fullest. Great job.

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