Review: Room, Emma Donoghue


Jack is five. He lives with his Ma. They live in a single, locked room. They don’t have the key.

Jack and Ma are prisoners.

Room by Emma Donoghue is an extraordinarily powerful story of a mother and child kept in isolation, and the desire for, and price of, freedom.

Room had been on my radar for a couple of months, partially because, of course, Brie Larson earned her Oscar for portraying the role of Ma in the Hollywood movie adaptation of Donoghue’s bestselling novel, but mainly because I watched most of the film silently on an aeroplane as I peered through the seats at the screen of the person sitting in front of me, and thought oh god, this looks so intense and claustrophobic and good.

So, I had heard, and seen, great things about Room, and although Donoghue’s work is original, compelling, and rather enchanting, I do have to say that I was a little disappointed too. Maybe it was Jack’s narrative I found it hard to get into, although props to Donoghue for creating and maintaining the language and storytelling powers of a five-year-old the whole way through. There were new words and confusing phrases which did well to add to a character who has a very limited world in which to learn the English language, but which didn’t do very well to keep me hooked. I had to keep reading things twice and stopping to wonder what certain things meant, which some people might enjoy as good child characterisation, but which I found personally a little distracting.

Despite my problems with the narrative, I love love loved the story (as much as you can love a story of kidnapping, rape and entrapment) and I just loved the way Donoghue dealt with Jack’s new-found freedom from the middle of the novel onwards. Of course he wouldn’t understand it, of course he would be bewildered and overwhelmed by a world he had only just discovered existed, and his mother’s disappointment and upset in his reactions is told perfectly through Jack’s naive eyes.

It’s worth pointing out too that, for a five-year-old, Jack certainly makes some perceptive observations about the world around him. After finding it at first to be so huge and overwhelming, he later remarks ‘Lots of the world seems to be a repeat’ – the perfect innocent satire for fresh eyes perhaps already disillusioned.

The character of Ma was somewhat of an enigma to me. Shown only through Jack’s eyes, at times I loved her as unconditionally as Jack does, and at other times I did not agree with her, or could not understand her reasons or methods of coping with the situation. I really think that was the point, though. She is a real woman placed in a horrifying and unique situation and she reacts in good ways and in bad ways, and she is above all, human and flawed and doing the best she can. Even through Jack’s distorted eyes we are able to see her as more than just a mother, as a person in her own right, and it is for this reason why Donoghue makes such true and perceptive observations about motherhood, even in the most extreme of situations.

I think I’ll finish this review by quoting Emma Donoghue herself in her rather wonderful Afterword. She says that ‘Really, a novel does not exist, does not happen, until readers pour their own lives into it,’ and never has a statement been more true. She writes of people contacting her about Room, using their own experiences of parenting or motherhood or domestic abuse even as a basis of their reading of the novel. Obviously I do not have such experiences, and perhaps like Jack I looked at the book through naive and innocent eyes. It had an impact though, it had an empowerment to it. And despite everything, I am still thinking about it days after finishing which, to me, is always the sign of a good book.

Now I wonder if I will be brave enough to watch the film version with the sound on…

room 2

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