14: Room

RoomRoom by Emma Donoghue

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

From the fall 2012 VPL book sale.

Read in May 2013.

View all my reviews

Here’s one I probably don’t need to say much about. You’ve either read it or you’ve read about it. My question going in was “will it live up to the hype?” The answer: yes.

Jack, the narrator, is five years old. His mother, who he calls Ma, is 26. They live in a 12×12 room, which turns out to be a garden shed (spoiler? I think that horse has left the barn). Jack thinks Room is the whole world and everything else is “TV” (imaginary). Jack calls everything by proper nouns: Bed, Wardrobe, Door. This is partly because there is only one of each of these things in his world. But also, I wondered if it didn’t partly come from the children’s shows he likes to watch. For example, he’s a big fan of Dora, and Dora’s backpack is called Backpack.

Ma has managed to shelter Jack from the reality of their situation, but now that he’s five, he’s starting to ask questions. She decides to tell him the truth. Events start snowballing from there.

What I thought was particularly impressive about Room was the pacing. It starts off at an almost oppressive pace, detailing the minutia of a day in the room. But then just when you start to think “I’m not sure how much more this I can take” Donoghue shifts gears, and the story speeds up to an almost frenetic pace. Finally, she slows it down again, letting readers catch their breaths.

I know some readers didn’t like the story being told in Jack’s voice—they find kid-voices annoying or question the authenticity of his thoughts—but I think to tell this particular story, it had to be from his pov. If it were told from Ma’s pov, it would be a story we’ve heard before. We also have no trouble imagining how we’d feel if we were kidnapped/falsely imprisoned. So telling the story from Ma’s pov sets up a very different narrator/reader dynamic. Jack’s situation is outside the realm of our experience . Readers have to work harder to understand his perspective, not because he’s a child, but because we (with few exceptions) didn’t start off life like Jack did.

tl;dr: It is easy for us to empathize with Ma; we have to work to empathize with Jack.

And that’s why I think the last part, when Jack is suffering from sensory overload, when he wants to go back, is so important. This story is not about freedom, as it would be if it was told from Ma’s pov, but about adjustment. Jack has to adjust the entire framework of his life experience.

VPL Fall Book Sale

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